Book: A World Without Secrets

A World Without Secrets

A World Without Secrets

A World Without Secrets

A Colton James novel

Copyright ©2002, 2014 by Thomas J. DePrima


All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. The scanning, uploading, downloading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or any other means without the permission of the copyright holder is illegal, and punishable by law.

No part of this novel may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the copyright holder, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.


ISBN: 9781619310223

ISBN-10: 1619310228

Cover Artwork by: Joe Simmons Illustration

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To contact the author, or see additional information about this and his other novels, visit:


Many thanks to retired Special Agent Jeff Thurman, who provided an insider's knowledge of the FBI. Jeff's information allowed me to paint a more accurate picture of the Bureau than would otherwise have been presented.

Other novels by the author:

A Galaxy UnknownTM

A Galaxy UnknownTM

Valor at Vauzlee

The Clones of Mawcett

Trader Vyx


Castle Vroman

Against All Odds

Return to Dakistee

Retreat And Adapt

AGU:TM Border Patrol…

Citizen X

Clidepp Requital


The Star Brotherhood

When The Spirit…                                                 

When The Spirit Moves You

When The Spirit Calls

Chapter One

As we sleep, significant events occur that shape our destinies. If luck favors us, we'll have an opportunity to influence the role we must play, but all too often the masses are merely puppets in the daily drama. Above all else I desire to be the master of my own destiny, but only history will show if I was any more successful in my quest than the millions of like-minded individuals who have gone before me. My name is Colton James, and I live in New York.

After midnight, the midtown skyline of Manhattan is commanded by giant monoliths as the towering office buildings in a city that never really sleeps grow dark and silent. Residences across the length and breadth of the island similarly slip into shadowy darkness, except where a television's flickering glow emanates from an apartment window. In spring, New York is halfway between the freezing temperatures of February and the suffocating heat of July. Here and there, a solitary vehicle traverses deserted streets, disturbing little except scattered patches of ground fog. In the still of the night, a police or ambulance siren wailing its mournful message can often be heard in the distance. Dark silhouettes created by the soft yellow glow from an unwavering parade of streetlamps briefly assume ghostlike form as an early morning mist slithers silently beneath them. A solitary man walking his dog creates a surreal image as they glide mutely in and out of the wispy shadows.

The explosion changed everything in a heartbeat.

The blast rocked the surrounding buildings to their foundations. Deadly shards of window glass flew like razor-edged daggers into nearby apartments, offices, and stores. An enormous orb of flame stretched skyward ever higher like a miniature sun trying to break free of Earth's gravity. Vehicle and building alarms began to wail, whoop, or simply ring with abandon. Cars in the street near the blast were tossed about like children's toys in a playground sandbox.

Comparatively few souls were awake to see it, yet hundreds of people, some as far away as Coney Island, would later swear to have witnessed the blast that shattered the normal pre-dawn tranquility. I was wrenched from peaceful slumber as the first thunderous shockwaves began reverberating off the walls of my bedroom. Flinging back the blanket and bedspread, I leapt from my bed, screamed, and fell back again as intense pain signals traveled from the nerves in my left foot to my brain. I fumbled for the switch on the nightstand lamp, although the glow from outside my building was almost as bright. A quick examination of the sole of my left foot disclosed a large sliver of glass embedded deep in the meaty flesh behind the toes, and a slowly spreading pool of crimson on the sheet provided mute testimony to the extent of the damage. I winced as I plucked it out, but with the unwelcome invader removed, the pain began to subside appreciably.

I was hesitant to again place my unprotected feet on the floor, so I peered over the edge of the bed to find my slippers. For the first time, I became acutely aware of the potential danger to my precious pedes. The floor presented a virtual minefield of jagged glass fragments— most small, but some pieces quite large.

Managing to reach my slippers without getting off the bed, I wisely turned them over, shook them, then banged them together to dislodge any remaining pieces that may have found their way inside. A sock wrapped tightly around my injured foot like a bandage would temporarily staunch the blood flow. Although anxious to resume my planned task, I nevertheless inserted my feet into the slippers with extreme care.

Taking great pains to avoid the larger chunks of wood and glass from my shattered window frames, I wove my way cautiously across the floor to reach one of two window openings in the outer wall that were now just empty holes. The image of overwhelming devastation that greeted my eyes shook me to the core.

New Yorkers, myself included, still live with the painful memory of the 2001 attack on the World Trade Towers. Recollection of that event led me to assume that a plane from one of several nearby international airports had crashed into the apartment building across the street from my flat. The five-story building was now just a memory. Where it had stood just minutes earlier was a half-acre-sized lot piled high with burning rubble. I could hear the plaintive howl of sirens in the distance growing steadily closer as I grabbed jeans, tee shirt, and shoes from my closet. I dressed in the living room, then bounded down the two flights of stairs after pulling my apartment door closed behind me. Only then did I wish I'd taken the time to pull on a pair of socks as well.

The front doors of my building were smashed and broken almost beyond recognition. Hanging precariously in shattered pieces from bent hinges, a sharp tug was all they required to complete their ruin. The former frame toppled to the floor at my feet, barely missing my left leg as I jumped backwards.

In the time it had taken to pull on my clothes and get to the building's front steps, three cars containing New York City's finest had arrived. More sirens heralded the approach of other vehicles, some no doubt belonging to fire engines and emergency services vehicles.

As I surveyed the devastation, I was struck by the thought that the buildings surrounding the now trash-filled building lot appeared like ghostly skulls, their empty window openings reminiscent of hollow eye sockets and rhinal orifices. In a few places, people in various states of dress and undress peered silently from the empty cavities. Their ashen faces reflected shock and horror as they surveyed the horrific spectacle. A homeless man, asleep in a cellar stairway at the time of the explosion, peered nervously over the edge of the basement retaining wall to see what had happened while the street slowly filled with curious residents from the surrounding neighborhood.

I picked my way carefully through the layers of trash that now obscured the five stone steps leading down to street level while I tried to scan the scene for signs of crash survivors. There were none in sight. Nor did I see any recognizable aircraft parts such as engines, wings, seats, or a tail section. I recalled the televised images of the site near Shanksville, Pennsylvania where one of the 9/11 terrorist-flown planes had crashed. I supposed the plane here must have impacted with similar velocity to have disintegrated so totally that building wreckage could disguise all aircraft parts.

As the vanguard of firefighting apparatus maneuvered around overturned vehicles to reach hydrants, firefighters dragging hoses leapt from the rear of the fire trucks. I stood transfixed by the experience as the trained professionals quickly completed the connections and sprayed the first of many thousands of gallons of water that would be consumed extinguishing the fire before it could spread.

Until this point, police on the scene had hurried around looking for injured survivors, but as more fellow officers arrived, some began their first efforts at crowd control. Aware that there was no opportunity for me to assist, I turned my attention to personal concerns and began hunting for my car. I'd thought myself indeed fortunate to find a parking spot directly across the street from my house when I'd arrived home the night before. When I realized that none of the cars immediately in front of the now destroyed building had survived the blast, I wished I hadn't been so lucky. I finally located my car, sitting on its roof in the middle of the street, wrecked almost beyond imagination.

After picking my way through piles of trash, I sank to my knees and tried to peer through the large hole that an intact windshield had filled just minutes earlier. I'd been hoping the cardboard box I'd left sitting on the rear seat was still inside the car. No such luck— it was gone.

Almost fifty dollars of my steadily dwindling funds had been expended at the copy store for six immaculate copies of my latest novel. Although the predominance of agents and publishers had finally joined the electronic age and accepted internet-transmitted digital copies, a small number still wanted hard copies. With money so scarce, I couldn't afford to let the copies be lost. Since the box wasn't inside the car, I began to hunt around outside.

I finally located the carton. It was sitting overturned amid a huge clutter of trash— most of which turned out to be parts of my manuscript. I righted the box and began to fill it with the surrounding reams of loose paper.

"Whadda ya doing there, Mac?" a voice asked brusquely from behind me.

"Trying to salvage a box of photocopies I had in my car," I said as I stood and turned to face the cop. "They cost me fifty bucks today."

"Where do you live?"

"Right behind you," I said, pointing to my apartment house. "That blue Chevy over there is mine," I added, moving my arm to point at the wrecked car.

"Let me see what you got in the box."

The cop bent and rummaged quickly through the box before straightening up. "Okay, but don't let me catch you looting."

"Looting? Loot what? That building has been empty for two years. What kind of plane was it?"

"What plane?"

"The one that hit the building."

"Wasn't no plane, Mac. They're saying it musta been a gas leak or something."

I scowled and shook my head. "Okay for me to finish picking up my photocopies?"

"Yeah, go ahead," the cop said over his shoulder as he started to move towards other people looking through cars.

Despite the care I exercised in collecting the loose papers, it was obvious that many of the pages would be unusable. But by salvaging everything, I might be able to reassemble a couple of complete manuscripts.

Tired and disgusted, I carried the box upstairs and dropped it against the wall just inside my apartment's front door. I wished then that I'd brought it up when I'd arrived home, but who could have known that the building across the street would suddenly blow up in the middle of the night?

Rather than rejoining the gawking spectators, I began to clear the detritus from my bedroom. I couldn't find the pair of canvas and leather work gloves I'd bought several years ago, but I did come across an old pair of woolen winter mittens that I could use to protect my hands. After carefully picking up as much of the glass and wood pieces as I could and placing them into an empty box I'd retrieved from a closet, I used a vacuum cleaner to get the rest. Although it appeared like I'd gotten it all, I knew I'd be afraid to walk barefoot around my bedroom until the rug was thoroughly vacuumed several more times. If I'd had the money, I'd have called in a rug cleaning company.

Once I was able to move around the apartment without fear of slicing my feet to pieces, I turned my attention to the rest of the damage. Large shards of glass were embedded in the walls of the bedroom, some so deeply that they refused to budge until I used a pair of pliers on them. I was extra careful not to break them further and thus make them irretrievable without causing additional damage to the walls. I hadn't noticed earlier, but my bedspread was covered with tiny fragments of glass. When I'd flung back the covers, the fragments had been temporarily hidden from view.

It was amazing just how far chunks of glass had traveled. My third-floor flat was laid out like a railroad car. The bedroom was at the front of the building where two large windows looked out onto the street. Behind that was the living room with no windows. Then came a small hallway that ran alongside the bathroom. The bathroom was located on the outside wall of the house, but there was no window in there either. Lastly, there was the kitchen. The kitchen had one large window that looked out on the backyard, two stories down. After climbing the inside stairway to my apartment, the front door entered the hallway by the bathroom.

Several small pieces of glass had made it through the bedroom and living room, ending up in my kitchen. I knew I'd been lucky that none of the flying pieces had pierced my sleeping form.

The weather wasn't expected to turn really cold for the next few days, but rain was forecast for sometime during the afternoon, so I used large, semi-transparent garbage bags and duct tape to temporarily seal out the elements. I also set up my video camera to record the cleanup efforts across the street so I could study it later and possibly use some of what I observed when writing a story. After making a small hole where the lens could poke through the plastic, I ran the video output on the camera to an old desktop computer. The enormous hard drive was almost empty and it would keep recording everything for a week if I let it.

By the time I finished cleaning the mess in my apartment, the fire across the street was under control. The sun was peeking over the tops of tall buildings and the streets of the neighborhood were filling with the normal vehicular traffic of those people fortunate enough to have jobs. Now that the initial adrenaline rush from the incident was over, I was feeling tired. I was presently unable to count myself among the ranks of the employed, so I stripped off the covers because I feared they might contain tiny slivers of glass, then sheathed the bed with fresh linens and blankets. After I removed my outer clothes, I slipped back between the sheets to get a little more sleep. Money was getting low, and it appeared that extended unemployment benefits might be on the verge of ending. My bank account balance, not large to begin with when I was 'surplused' by an innovative technology company in Flushing, Queens, seemed in danger of disappearing altogether. I had definitely begun to rethink my career goals. But for now, getting some more sleep was uppermost in my mind.

Awakened again a little after ten a.m., this time by the sounds of heavy equipment, I wandered over to a window to see what was going on. The garbage bags I'd used to cover the opening allowed me to see out, although the thick plastic distorted the scene that greeted me.

Firefighters were still hosing down the building where plumes of smoke rose from smoldering piles of twisted metal and building materials. The equipment noise that had awakened me was emanating from tow trucks preparing wrecked cars for removal to a city lot. My own car was already gone, but I wasn't too concerned because my earlier quick inspection had shown it to be far beyond simple repair. Overwhelming evidence of a bent frame was obvious. Since it was a twenty-two-year-old clunker, there would be little point in repairing it. Like most city residents, I rarely left anything of value in the car— that is, until last night— but street punks normally had no interest in reams of used copy paper.

Turning away from the devastation, I padded to the kitchen for a quick breakfast of corn flakes in milk, then enjoyed several cups of coffee as I listened to the typical morning news babble on the radio. As I expected, the building explosion was the lead story, with the blast attributed to a probable gas leak despite numerous reports that the water, gas, and electricity had been turned off years ago. The company that owned the building denied any knowledge of what might have caused the explosion and claimed no one had even been inside during the months they had been waiting for zoning approvals on their proposed demolition and new construction.

While I wasn't so fastidious with other things in my life, dirty plates and counters invited cockroaches, the scourge of city living. As soon as I was through eating, I washed my breakfast dishes and put them in the rack to dry, then turned my attention to personal grooming.

I felt enormously better after a shave and a shower, so I dressed and left to pick up a morning newspaper. The owner of my building was on the first floor, supervising the efforts of two workers as they prepared to replace the broken doorframe. A small pile of new lumber sat stacked in the hallway and would help provide temporary protection for the building after the damaged pieces were removed. Without an exterior door we'd be extending an open invitation to rats and possibly unwelcome human visitors.

"Morning, Mr. Trent," I said casually.

"Good morning, Mr. James. Some mess, eh?"

"Yeah. I cleaned up the mess in my apartment right after the explosion. When do you think you'll get replacement windows installed?"

"As soon as possible, I promise. My first priority is to get the entranceway and window openings sealed so we don't have animals and vermin trying to enter. My carpenters will put plywood over your windows in the front until we can get proper replacements. The sizes in these old buildings are no longer standard, so they'll probably have to be specially manufactured. Will you be home this afternoon?"

"Yeah. I'm just going out for a paper and a walk around the blast site. I'll be back within an hour."

"I'll see you later then," he said to my back as I descended the cleared front steps.

Walking to the nearest newsstand/convenience store a block away, I picked up a copy of a local rag. The placement of the store and the metal, roll-down burglar protection gate had prevented damage there. Tucking the paper under my arm, I strolled around the block where the destroyed building had been. There were several places where I had to step into the street to get around fire trucks still working at the scene or news trucks covering the efforts. Something about the site was troubling me, but I couldn't quite put my finger on it.

As I approached my building after my walk, a reporter and cameraman blocked my path.

"Excuse me, sir. Do you live on this block?" the female newsperson asked as she stuck a microphone in my face.

"Yes, I do. I live two buildings down."

"I'm Lena Williams from CINC Cable News. Were you at home when the explosion occurred?"

"Yes, but I was asleep," I said as I tried to sidle past the reporter.

"Was anyone injured in your apartment?" she asked as she again moved to block my escape.

"My bedroom faces the street and I was injured by a piece of glass. I live alone so no one else was hurt there. My car was on the street in front of the apartment building though. The force of the explosion bent it almost in half. The city has apparently hauled it away. May I get past you now?"

"Did you notice anything suspicious just before the explosion?" she asked with complete disregard for my patient request.

"No. As I just said, I was sleeping. The building has been closed and vacant for years."

"Thank you, Mister— ?"

"James. Colton James." I don't know why I gave her my name. I had no need to be any more civil than she was when she repeatedly blocked my path, but as an author trying to establish name recognition, I didn't figure it would hurt.

The newsperson finally stopped moving into my path to prevent my escape and hurried down the street with her cameraman in tow as she sought to annoy one of my neighbors who had just emerged from his residence.

At the top of the steps outside my building, I spun around to stare at the disaster site for a few minutes. I had suddenly realized what had been confusing me. There wasn't any building material rubble outside the perimeter walls of the wrecked structure. Images from war zones always show the collateral damage to surrounding buildings from debris that flies out for a block or more in every direction, but not a single brick had landed outside the walls of the original apartment building here. Logically, the fronts of buildings across from the apartment building should have been severely peppered by flying debris. But while the windows and doors in the neighborhood had been blown out by concussive force, the stone facades of the buildings seemed unmarred. Apparently, only dust, dirt, and very light objects such as paper had escaped from the apartment building site. So it hadn't been an explosion at all. It had been an implosion.

"That just doesn't make sense," I mumbled. "What could possibly have caused an implosion of an apartment building?" Lost in thought, I threaded my way past the busy carpenters and climbed the narrow interior stairs to my third-floor apartment.

Chapter Two

News of the explosion continued as the lead story on all local news stations and repeated hourly on the cable news networks. As a result, I found myself spending the afternoon on the phone with friends who, upon hearing the address, became concerned for my safety. I received a number of offers for a place to stay until repairs to my apartment were completed, but I declined all while expressing my grateful appreciation for the offer and explaining that damage to my flat was limited to two broken windows.

During the afternoon, my landlord's carpenters came and covered each of the two window openings with plywood. I wouldn't let them leave, however, until they had cut a one-foot square opening in one, despite their vociferous protests. I said I would assume full responsibility for the opening. As soon as they had gone, I covered the opening with clear plastic and restarted the video camera. The opening afforded me at least a modicum of natural light in the room.

An insurance adjuster dropped by for a visit just after the workmen left. He claimed to be working for the company that carried the policy on the destroyed apartment building. He recorded the facts of the damage to my apartment, the injury to my foot, the damage to my car, and the lost photocopies. He promised he'd contact me again once the initial investigation was complete. I wondered if that would happen this year.

After washing and putting the dinner dishes away, I cleared the table and brought the box of photocopies to the kitchen so I could sort through the confusing mass. Intermingled with the valid photocopies I'd retrieved were a number of unrelated papers. Some appeared to be old rent receipts, probably from the building across the street, and some were just discarded papers like those likely to be found lying on any downtown city street. I made a separate pile for everything not related to my manuscript.

Hours later I had one complete, almost pristine manuscript and another that needed about fifty replacement pages before it could be submitted to a publisher. I also had one full copy that I would retain but which could never be sent out. Any editor receiving it would probably assume the writing was as poor as the appearance and reject it without even reading the first page. I remembered seeing an online comment made by a submissions editor who'd retired from a large publishing concern. While working, he'd said that if he found any typos or misspellings in the cover letter, he trashed the manuscript without even looking at the first page. I knew it was difficult enough convincing an editor or agent to glance at an unknown author's work without erecting obstacles in my own path.

I still had the original manuscript on my laptop computer and backup copies on USB flash drives, so I could always have more copies printed, but it would be a further drain on my precious funds.

During my years working in the computer industry, my job had grown steadily less fulfilling. When I found myself among the unemployed as the firm embarked on a massive layoff program, I was ready for a change. I'd known that chances for success as an author were incredibly slim. A famous writer had once compared it to winning the lottery and said that only one author in a hundred thousand ever made enough to write full-time.

Like most actors and actresses who had part-time and full-time jobs to support themselves while they struggled to land bit parts in their quest for a place among the stars, most authors worked at mundane jobs while they tried to find a publisher for their work. And like actors who finally made it, authors must continue to turn out exceptional work, or they'd find themselves back at those mundane jobs after a brief interval of living their dream. Few authors enjoyed a glorious and exciting lifestyle like that presented in most movies and television shows, such as Murder, She Wrote or Castle. From time to time, real writers actually had to sit down and write something, a task that consumed all available time for months or even years. A number of famous authors and writers had been credited with quotations similar to, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein." From my own limited experience, I could certainly relate to the sentiment.

Unemployment compensation, combined with my savings, had allowed me to give it my best shot, but after years of full-time effort I had become so cash-strapped that I was facing the need to find a nine-to-five, even if it meant flipping burgers at a fast food outlet. Knowing that would probably end my dream of becoming a full-time author, I had struggled to stave off that day. Although numerous publishers had rejected each of my first two novels, I still believed in my work and continued to send manuscripts to any publishing house that accepted unsolicited material. I'd quickly exhausted possibilities at the very few large houses and had then begun working my way through 'mom and pop' publishing businesses that probably operated out of a space in their basement, attic, or possibly even Aunt Edna's garage.

After preparing a list of the pages that would need to be reproduced to complete the second manuscript copy, I stashed the box of good pages in a closet. I was left with two piles of paper on the table, one of damaged manuscript pages and one of street trash that had gotten mixed in with my photocopies. Most would go into the trash, but I'd save the decent pages to use for scratch paper. When doing internet and library research for my stories, I was always looking for something on which to jot notes until the information could be keyed into one of the research databases I maintained on my computer. When out of work, even purchasing a package of post-it notes was an indulgence.

With my work area organized, I took out my laptop and plugged it into the phone line so I could log onto my internet service provider account. The local cable service wanted fifty bucks a month for broadband service if not ordering cable TV as well, and the phone company wanted forty bucks for DSL service. I'd readily concede that the response was incredibly faster with a digital subscriber line or a cable broadband connection, but the six-dollars-a-month unlimited dial-up service saved me a bundle. In my reduced circumstances, dial-up won the day. I was willing to wait a few seconds longer for content to download.

Within a minute, I was connected online. I checked my email first, hoping against hope that today would finally be the day I received a note of acceptance from one of the publishers to whom I'd sent a manuscript. Publishing is a funny business. Most publishers warn authors that they won't accept simultaneous submissions. That is to say, they won't consider manuscripts that have also been sent to another publisher. They back up this threat by stating that should an author violate this rule, the publisher will never again consider work from that author. Authors are expected to wait patiently for anywhere from three months to a year or longer to hear back before submitting elsewhere, even though most publishers openly admit that less than one manuscript in a thousand ever makes it past even the first level of screeners, or gatekeepers, as they're affectionately known in the industry. Agents, on the other hand, were permitted to send copies of a manuscript out to as many publishers as they wished, but it was almost impossible for an unknown author to get an agent. So far, I'd played by their rules and waited until a story was rejected before sending it to someone else, but I always wondered how authors were expected to find a publisher during their lifetime if they didn't have an agent. When hearing stories of young writers with drawers full of rejection slips for one manuscript, I figured not everyone was playing by the rules established by the big publishing houses. This was confirmed when an online blog by a new author told of how he'd gotten his big break and sold his first book. He'd sent a copy to every publisher at once and had even gotten them into a bidding war for his book.

As usual, my few legitimate emails didn't contain any offers from publishers, just as my snail mail never contained any checks for advances. I cleared the glut of spam without even opening it and then started answering mail from friends. I also responded to several notes from fans who enjoyed the stories I'd written and posted on various free fiction websites. The constant stream of fan letters had been responsible for making me believe I really had a chance of making it as a professional author, even though I'd never taken more than the two English courses required of Computer Science majors in college. Although my fans kept begging for more, the editors at the publishing houses didn't feel that my stories were commercially viable. But the praise from fans never failed to reinvigorate me and lift me out of the depression most wannabe writers experienced after months and years of unsuccessfully trying to market their work. I'd once sworn that my stories would never wind up buried at the bottom of a desk drawer like the works of so many talented but unappreciated authors, but things didn't look promising. Self-publishing was gaining ground, and I had already decided I would go that route if I hadn't made it in the traditional publishing world by the end of the year. I had no bias against self-publishing, but I also had no interest in spending half my time managing and promoting my books. I wanted to write.

As had been my practice, I thanked each of my fans for their correspondence and promised I'd be posting another free short story soon.

The last email on the list was from a name I didn't recognize, so despite not having an entry in the subject line I assumed it was another fan letter. When I opened it, all it said was, 'Destroy it before it destroys you, Mr. James.'

I sat back in my chair and thought about my sci-fi short stories as I stared at the screen. From long experience, I knew fans often wrote cryptic notes, occasionally in very stunted English. Sometimes it was intentional and sometimes not. Whenever I received something cryptic, I thought of the old phrase,'All your base are belong to us.' It came from a poorly translated version of the Japanese video game Zero Wing, and the absurd wording became an internet phenomenon. But this was far more cryptic than any note I'd ever received before. I hit the reply button, intending to ask the sender to clarify, but the email software refused to set up the reply format because there was no return address.

As I would expect any other computer-literate person to do, I opened the header record of the email to look at the routing information. There was nothing there. "That's impossible," I said aloud. "There has to be routing data in the header. The message couldn't have just appeared inside my computer. It has to be a software malfunction."

An examination of the previous emails showed that each contained a proper routing history detailing which mail servers the message had passed through on its way to my home computer. While I was still engaged in examining the old email, a new fan email appeared in the queue. It correctly contained the proper routing information.

I shrugged, then sent the strange message to the email software's trash bin before turning my attention to the newest email. After I'd sent off my reply, I opened my word processing program, intent on working late into the night on a free short story I could post on the net. For now, I would have to settle for fan adulation instead of monetary compensation for my hard work. Too bad the utility company and landlord wouldn't accept fan adulation in lieu of cash. I would have been only too happy to gush and fawn over their generosity for as long as necessary to avoid having to send them money.

* * *

A walk to the post office completed my only required task the next morning. The one pristine copy I'd been able to assemble was safely nestled in the green, cloth carry-bag I usually used for grocery shopping. The chosen recipient was a publisher that had earlier rejected my other manuscript, but since choices were so limited and the publisher was one of the larger small presses, I knew I had to try once again.

As I patiently waited in line for the three postal workers to deal with the people ahead of me, I scanned the reward posters on the wall. An old flyer for Osama bin Laden, with a posted reward amount of twenty-five million dollars, still took up space on the bulletin board. Someone with a red marking pen had drawn a large 'X' over his face and crudely drawn flames behind him. Since the flyer was behind a locked glass door, the 'flames' artist had to be from the Post Office, but someone else had scrawled a small comment on a piece of note paper and taped it on the glass. It said simply, 'Formerly an honored and protected guest of the terrorist-friendly Pakistan government. Now residing uncomfortably in Jahannam as a favored guest of Maalik.' I doubted that anyone from New York City would complain, and most would probably cheer if they ever learned what the references meant.

I sighed and daydreamed about what I could have done with that reward money. First, I could have set up a small publishing operation of my own and hired people to do the marketing without having to rely on the judgment of publishing house screeners and acquisition editors. I didn't have an Aunt Edna or a garage, but with twenty-five million dollars I knew I could rent something. Most importantly, I would be able to write whatever I wished and not have to worry constantly about money. That was the dream of every author who hadn't yet made the big time— and probably a few that had at one time. I would even be able to place full-page ads in newspapers and advertise on television.

When I'd returned to my apartment and resumed work at my computer, I pulled up my 'Story Ideas' file and examined each of the entries there. Whenever a kernel of an idea for a potential story struck me, I wrote a quick paragraph describing the basic plot idea and filed it there, so this was naturally the first place I went when I needed to begin a new story. But none of the potential ideas clicked. I also looked over the list of stories I had begun, then dropped when the inspiration evaporated. Finally, I wound up staring at the blank screen for several hours as I brainstormed ideas and then dismissed them after deciding they wouldn't work within the originally defined plot.

Before closing the lid on my laptop, I checked my email file one last time and saw that I didn't have any messages on the server. But there was one unopened message already in my mail-handling queue. I clicked on the message and discovered it was similar to the one I'd received the day before. It said simply, 'Destroy it before it destroys you. Destroy it now!' Again, there was no header record. The only logical conclusion was that my computer had become contaminated with a virus. Despite having the best anti-virus, anti-spam, and anti-spyware software packages on the market protecting my system, something had gotten through. The only solution was to initiate a diagnostic process that would scan my entire system while I went to prepare my lunch.

Three hours later, the diagnostic process had completed its work. It indicated that the machine was completely clean. In other words, there were no viruses found in the computer. I scratched my head and then shrugged my shoulders. It just didn't make any sense. I created a special folder to hold the strange emails and set up routing code so new messages would automatically be forwarded there. Before shutting off the computer, I checked the software's trash folder. The previous email was still there.

* * *

I spent the next several afternoons watching the activity across the street from the front steps of my apartment building while I concocted and then discarded idea after idea for possible story plots. The fire over there was completely out, and empty dump trucks arrived in a continuous stream and then trundled away after being filled. People in firefighting gear were still combing through the wreckage, ostensibly trying to determine the flash point of the explosion, according to the news reporters.

On the fourth day, an idea for a spectacular story began germinating in my head. I envisioned a spacecraft from a distant planet approaching Earth, only to lose control just as it encountered the planet's gravity well. Instead of making the intended soft landing in the remote Arizona desert— the landing location of choice for intergalactic travelers for over five thousand years— the craft would crash-land in one of our largest cities. As the out-of-control ship collided with an empty apartment building, the artificial gravity system used aboard the ship would cause an implosion rather than an explosion. The military, aware that the object was a spacecraft and not a meteor, would borrow fire department uniforms to search through the rubble without raising suspicion from the local residents. In a remote area, they would have simply evacuated the residents for miles around the crash site with a dire warning of life-threatening viral agents, but they couldn't very well evacuate the millions of people in a city such as New York.

I shook my head vigorously a couple of times and smiled. The trouble with being a fiction author was that I must allow my imagination to run wild and free at times to keep developing new ideas for stories. It was fun, but I had to remember to keep things in proper perspective and keep myself rooted in reality lest I wind up in the psych ward at Bellevue. Still, the idea was an interesting one and might work if I could populate the tale with an interesting cast of characters. The sci-fi part was usually easy to write once I'd addressed the technological issues, but developing the characters and their interactions was real work. I decided I should start while I was feeling inspired, so I stood up to return to my apartment just as a large piece of debris found near the center of the demolished apartment building across the street was being loaded onto a flat-bed trailer. I was already upstairs by the time it was covered with a heavy canvas tarp for its trip to wherever it was headed.

Hours later, I was still scribbling away on scrap paper as I tried to assemble my character cast for the story. As I worked, I would occasionally decide that the personality profile of a proposed member just wouldn't fit in with the rest of the group, so I'd crumple up the page and toss it into the wastepaper basket. So far, the previously empty basket was almost a third full. The good news was that I believed I had a solid foundation with the three principal characters, and populating the story with supporting characters was moving along well. As I pondered the interactions, I further defined the personality and temperament of the protagonist.

I was suddenly inspired with an idea for a truck driver who would provide important information about strange wreckage found at the crash site. I took a piece of paper from my scrap paper pile to start describing him and his history, but the pen refused to write. I shook it and tried again, but the ink still didn't flow. Believing it to be dry, I grabbed another pen to use. When the second pen failed to write, I tried it on another piece of paper. It worked fine. Using the first pen on the second piece of paper was also successful.

My curiosity was aroused. I picked up the first piece of paper and examined it closely. Other than being slightly silver in appearance, it looked like an ordinary piece of copier paper, the type I purchased by the case for use with my computer's inkjet printer. I guessed it must have gotten mixed in with my scrap paper when I'd combined the stacks of useless manuscript pages with some of the trash I'd picked up in the street. Since I couldn't use it, I crumpled it into a tight ball and tossed it at the wastepaper basket as I took the second sheet and began writing again.

It was closing on midnight when I sat back in my chair, stretched, and yawned. A satisfied feeling for the great progress I had made on my first day suffused through my chest— but then the first day always went well when I felt inspired by a new story idea. My stomach had been not so gently reminding me for hours that I hadn't eaten dinner, but I'd managed to ignore it for the most part as I recorded my first thoughts. However, the time had come to quell the uncomfortable rumbling from deep in my bodily interior.

After half-filling a two-quart pot with water, I placed it on the stove and used a stick match to ignite the gas burner. The old stove predated the ones with an automatic, electronic igniter, and I mistrusted pilot lights because if they went out, the apartment could fill with gas.

When I was as hungry as I felt right then, I usually sated my appetite with pasta. While the water heated, I cleared the table so I could eat without splattering pasta sauce on my laptop or paperwork. As I stepped back from the table and turned to see if the water was boiling, I spotted a blank sheet of paper lying on the floor next to the wastepaper basket. I bent to pick it up and immediately noticed the silvery appearance. It was just like the piece I had crumpled and discarded earlier after discovering I couldn't write on it. Grabbing a marker pen, I tried to write a line near the edge rather than just adding a possibly useless piece of paper to my scrap paper pile. When that failed, I tried to write a diagonal line across the center. Again nothing appeared. I naturally assumed it was another sheet like the one I'd tossed away earlier, so I crumbled it into a tight ball. Taking two steps backward, I tossed it as if it were a basketball, using the wastebasket as the hoop.

Since I wasn't otherwise occupied, I let my eyes follow its trajectory. Halfway to the basket, the paper suddenly sprang open and floated gently to the floor. I stood transfixed, my mouth agape, staring at the paper and unable to believe my eyes. I must have stood there with my mouth open, looking at the sheet of paper, for a full thirty seconds before retrieving it and returning to the table. A close examination disclosed not the slightest trace of a crease or mark on the sheet. The pot of water I had put onto the stove was by now bubbling over and hissing when splatters hit the burner, but I ignored it as I sat down at the table to think. I knew I had to determine if I had really seen the paper open up, so I crumpled it into the tightest ball I could manage and set it on the table in front of me. My hand had barely moved away from the wadded up paper before it sprang open. I watched in fascination as the crease lines melted away before my eyes, then just sat and stared transfixed at the paper for about ten minutes as I struggled to dredge up every memory I had about such an outstanding phenomenon.

I had heard about plastics with a memory. And there were several shaped-memory metal alloys such as Nitinol, a paramagnetic alloy of nickel and titanium that reportedly had similar properties but that required the application of heat to metamorphose to its original shape. While I was pretty sure the sheet wasn't plastic, it could be an exceedingly thin sheet of metal. Its slight silvery appearance reinforced this perception.

My only other recollection of anything remotely like this came from a television show I had seen about the reputed alien spacecraft landing in Roswell, New Mexico back in 1947. One of the first people on the scene later reported finding a piece of aluminum-foil-like material that would immediately return to its un-creased flat shape after being crumpled. Government investigators quickly denied the report, saying that the alleged alien craft was in fact just an ordinary weather balloon. Of course, since it was the government, no one really believed them. Most people expected government officials to always lie and spread disinformation about anything deemed top secret or potentially embarrassing to an administration. "This is certainly no weather balloon," I said aloud. "What if the original report was true and the government was able to duplicate the material at some point?"

To satisfy myself that this was the same paper I had thrown away earlier, I turned the wastebasket over, dumping the contents on the floor. I then examined each piece of scrap paper before returning it to the waste receptacle. When I had checked all the pieces and come up empty, it was proof there was only one piece like this.

"The question now, Mr. Colton James," I said aloud, "is what do you do about it? If you tell anyone about this, they'll confiscate it faster than you can say Area 51."

But what the hell good is having a secret as great as this one if I can't tell anyone, I thought as I grinned like an idiot.

I never did get my dinner and even forgot to turn off the stove until I noticed the bright red glow emanating from a blackened pot long empty of water. I also didn't get much sleep. I spent the first several hours sitting at the table crumpling or folding the paper every which way and then marveling as it flattened out and the creases completely disappeared. My favorite trick was to shape the paper like a plane and send it sailing across the room only to see it flatten out and float gently to the floor. But while the process was amazing, I failed to see any practical use for it. If it couldn't be written on, it was useless as paper unless there was a special pen that could be used. Thinking I just needed to figure out what kind of writing implement should be used, I tried every pencil, pen, and magic marker I could find in my apartment. I had no success with any of them. I even dug out an old box of graphic art supplies I'd purchased while in college and tried some India ink. It didn't work any better than the others.

It was after four in the morning when I made my next discovery. I had found a grease pencil mixed in with my college art supplies as I prepared to put them away. I happened to be standing when I first spotted the pencil in the box, so I held the paper against the wall to try it. The grease pencil didn't work any better than the other things I'd tried, but when I removed my hand from the paper, expecting it to float to the kitchen table directly below it, it remained stuck fast, as would a rubber balloon with a static charge.

As I stood there staring at the paper, I noticed the time on the wall clock just above it. The hours had passed like minutes. Unable to think of anything else to try at the moment, I decided some sleep might improve my deductive powers. At the very worst, it couldn't hurt. I was suddenly taken with an overwhelming urge to yawn and stretch— a sure sign I was tired.

Ten minutes later I was lying wide awake in bed, trying to decide what to do with this discovery. Light was already pushing its way through the foot-square opening in the plywood that covered the window area by the time I finally drifted off to sleep.

* * *

The paper was still firmly against the wall when I awoke in the early afternoon. I couldn't stop staring at it as I ate my breakfast cereal— two bowls today because I was so hungry.

I left the paper there as I tried to concentrate on the story outline I was preparing, and it was still there four days later when my buddy, Bill Boyles, stopped over.

"Hey, bro, whassup?" Billy said as he came in and plopped into a kitchen chair.

"Not much, Billy. I'm working on a new story."

I'd known Billy for about six years. He drove a cab, and I happened to be his first fare on a day when he felt particularly talkative. I guess I was feeling pretty talkative myself because we spent the whole trip talking about the chances that the New York Giants football team would make the playoffs again. When we arrived at my destination, he shut the engine off and we talked for another fifteen minutes about the Yankees. I finally had to go, but he said that anytime I felt like talking about the Giants or Yankees, I should drop into Murphy's Bar and Restaurant after six p.m. It wasn't far from my flat, and I'd passed it many times, but I'd never stopped in before then.

"I was wondering why you haven't been down to the bar. And you haven't come to the Y either. Our team hasn't won a game since you disappeared. You're the best point guard in the bar league. I thought you were going to take a couple of weeks off after you finished up the last one."

"I'm running out of time, Billy. I haven't had time for boozing or basketball. I still haven't had a publisher express the slightest interest in any of my stuff. I need to get this next book finished before I go back to working a nine-to-five, if I can even find a job. I've been away from computers for a long time now. The field may have passed me by."

"Nah, you're the smartest dude I know. You'll find something if you really want it."

"That's another whole issue. All I want out of life is to be an author. I get such a rush when I think about all the people who read and enjoy my stories. I did the computer thing for four years and was already tired of it when the company downsized after the merger. The money was good though."

"Say the word and I'll get you a job driving a hack. It'll give you tons of time to think about your stories while you're waiting for fares at a stand."

"Thanks, but that's not for me. I have to find something that'll stimulate my mind when I'm working. Driving a cab wouldn't do that."

"You could pretty much pick your own hours."

"Thanks. If I can't find anything else, I'll consider it."

"What's with the paper on the wall?" Billy asked as he stared at my silver conundrum.

"Oh, that's an experiment in static electricity. Don't move it, okay?"

"Sure. How about a beer?"

"Help yourself. There's Bud in the fridge."

"Want one?" Billy asked as he opened the refrigerator door and reached in. He was about the same age as me, but sitting in a cab all day, eating fast food on the run, and then drinking his supper was beginning to have an effect on his physique. It reminded me that I had to start walking more often.

"No," I said. "You go ahead though. I'm keeping my mind clear for the story I'm working on."

"What's it about this time?"

"The usual. Aliens, big brother, love blossoms, love is lost, love is rediscovered, big happy ending, nobody dies."

"Maybe you oughta change the recipe. It might help you sell a story. How about trying something like: aliens, love blossoms, love is lost, the girl dies violently and horribly, the hero is devastated and kills himself."

"Sort of like a Romeo and Juliet story in Outer Space?" I said as I chuckled. "I've considered changing the basic plot. The thing is, of all the free stories I've posted, my online fans love that old formula best. It's only the publishers that don't seem to like it. I just don't get it. And I can't write the dystopian stuff that some authors crank out quarterly because it's just too damn depressing. I want to believe that mankind can and will work through his problems and create a future that's better than what we have today."

"I think people love that dystopian stuff because they want to believe all the misery they've experienced in their sad lives is still superior to what the future holds for mankind. It makes them feel better about their own situation. They see plots like yours as Pollyanna stuff."

"Wow. That's deep, bro."

"Well, you have a lot of time to think when you're sitting at a taxi stand waiting for a fare to come along. I guess you naturally ponder the meaning of life and stuff. Say, how much money have you made from the stories you've posted on the internet?"

I chuckled. "Point taken."

"If the publishers want something different, give them something different. Once you start selling books, you can write whatever you want and see if the paying readers like it better."

"I don't know what the publishers want. That's my problem. I send in my stories and they send them back with a photocopied form letter saying they're not commercially viable, the project doesn't fit their current needs, or that a story must be truly outstanding to be accepted. I ask them if the plot was weak, the writing poor, or what? The standard response I get from the secretaries is that the editors don't have time to write a critique of every book they review. Who asked for a critique? All I want to know is the main reason for the rejection. Five words scribbled on the rejection letter would help me adjust what I write to what they wanna see."

"Maybe it's like the old saying. They don't know what they want, but they know it when they see it."

"I guess. I recently read a note posted on a website written by a woman who clerked for an editor at one of the big publishing houses a decade ago. She said that a major part of her job was to accept submissions coming from the mail room, stockpile them in a corner of her office, and then mail them back to the authors after thirty days without anyone ever having read them. It really makes me wonder if anyone is even looking at my work. In fact, I read a blog note from an author who placed a tiny white feather between the first and second pages of his manuscript. When the MS was sent back to him he opened it very carefully and found that the feather was precisely where he had positioned it, meaning that the MS had never been opened. I don't know how prevalent that is, but it makes their inability to scribble a comment understandable."

"Don't lose heart, bro. How many times have great authors had their early stories rejected, only to finally find someone who was willing to take a chance? Then you can thumb your nose at all the assholes who turned your work down. I've seen the fan letters you get and I've read your stories. You're really good, and you'll get published eventually. I just want an autographed copy of each of your books so I can prove to people that I knew you before you made it big."

I smiled. "You're great for my ego, Billy. I'm really glad you came over."

A somber look came over Billy's face. "Are you asking me to leave now?"

"Hell, no. Have another beer. Have two. My ego needs lots more stroking."

Billy smiled widely and chuckled. "Think I will. Ya know, Kathy was asking about you last week after the explosion. She said she tried to call twice, but your line was busy."

"I received a lot of calls from friends after the explosion. I was on the phone almost all day."

"She's got the hots for you, bro. I can't understand why you don't ask her out."

"Billy, I like Kathy. A lot. I really do. But I don't have the time or the money for dating. My bankroll is almost gone, and I can't afford to go to a movie by myself, much less take a date. Those thirty bucks will feed me for a week. I'm living like a hermit. When I do go out it's only to stop at the bar and nurse a single beer for a few hours until it's so warm that I can't stand to drink it."

"I just hope your books hit while you're still young enough to enjoy it."

"Yeah, me too."

* * *

I waited three more days before trying to remove the paper from the wall. I had concluded that it would probably stay there for as long as I left it alone, but I wanted to experiment a bit more. As my right thumb touched the paper in the top right corner, it suddenly illuminated like a television set. I jumped backward as if I'd received a massive electrical shock, lost my balance, and tripped over my own feet as I backpedaled.

I found myself sitting on the floor against the base of the sink cabinet, staring up at a telecast of people walking on a congested city street. I couldn't move as I sat there hyperventilating with my mouth wide open and my eyes probably as large as teacup saucers.

Chapter Three

I'd hit my head on the sink cabinet when I landed but didn't think I'd hit it so hard that I could be hallucinating from a concussion. And I had fallen only after suddenly seeing a piece of paper turn into a television.

I continued to sit on the floor, staring dumbfounded at the newly revealed video device. My involvement and passionate interests in the computer and electronics fields had always kept me on what's been referred to as the bleeding edge of technological development. That's about six months ahead of what's known as the leading edge and a year ahead of what the average person is seeing in the news. I knew nothing like this was available, predicted, or even contemplated for the near future. A product like this was not even speculative hardware at this point. It was what I'd always referred to as dreamware. A paper-thin monitor— literally paper-thin, without any visible power supply— had to be super hush-hush corporate or 'eyes-only' government stuff. Just knowing about it could make people 'disappear.' I immediately thought of the mysterious emails I'd received. "Someone already knows I have it," I mumbled. "In fact, they knew before I did. So who are they, and why haven't they shown up to collect it?"

I jumped to my feet and raced to my front door. After fumbling with the solid steel security pole, I managed to position it between the metal floor plate embedded just below the surface of the hardwood floor and the steel plate mounted on the door. As I pushed downward and locked it into place, I leaned back against the bathroom doorframe. There, I thought, it'll take someone with a battering ram to get through the door while that pole's in place, and they'll only succeed if they smash the solid door to kindling. But the idea of someone using a battering ram to get in set my mind reeling again, so I raced to my bedroom and peered cautiously out the one-foot square hole in the plywood. I couldn't spot anything suspicious, but that didn't mean there wasn't someone out there watching. Across the street, the lot was almost completely cleared. The firemen were long gone, and a front-end loader and several dump trucks were cleaning up in the far corner while workmen erected a plywood fence around the entire property. The absence of the apartment building meant that buildings on the cross street for an entire block now had an unobstructed view of my house. Anyone with binoculars or a telephoto lens could be watching my front door from a block away to see when I emerged. I stood there, quietly hyperventilating, while my heart pounded in my chest like an out-of-control trip-hammer. But the only people on the street were local residents, many of whom I knew and all of whom I recognized.

Satisfied that a SWAT team wasn't out front preparing to assault my apartment, I returned to the kitchen and stared out the back window. Nothing suspicious there either. The fenced backyards that I could see into were empty except for next door where old Mrs. Schmidt was hanging her wash. Of course, they could be watching the house by satellite. But if it was the government, wouldn't they just bust down the door and retrieve the device? "No," I said to myself, "it's not the government. The government is never subtle in matters like this. It definitely has to be somebody else— someone who has to maintain a low profile."

My next thought— that perhaps the device was some super advanced prototype a company was keeping top secret and they couldn't afford to make a scene— I immediately dismissed. That didn't make sense either. Someone would have approached me and tried to bully me or offered payment to get it back. Perhaps they would have threatened me to give it to them and then keep quiet about it. They certainly wouldn't have told me to destroy it.

"What am I thinking?" I mumbled. "Nobody has this kind of technology. It's a television as thin as a piece of paper that stays against a wall by itself, is self-powered, and can be folded up and put in a pocket. Nobody has this. At least nobody on this planet." My eyes opened wide and my jaw dropped as I realized the implications of that last sentence.

I was hyperventilating again as I sat down at the table and positioned myself directly in front of the device, so I worked to get my breathing under control as I stared at the image being projected and tried to reason its source. It didn't appear to be a television show. The image was more like what would be received from a security camera. What seemed like ordinary people were walking along an ordinary city street. I knew it wasn't New York City. For one thing, it was overcast outside my house, but the sky in the video image was bright and sunny. And people were wearing lighter-weight clothing than I'd expect to see in New York right now.

"So how do I change the channel and increase the volume?" I asked aloud. "There aren't any controls visible. Do I need a remote?"

Naturally I didn't receive an answer— not that I really expected one. And if I had, I would have immediately checked into Bellevue because I was already beginning to doubt my sanity.

Stretching out my arm, I touched the paper on the right side of the image, just inside the paper's edge. The image immediately began to shift right, as if the camera operator were moving sideways. I pulled my hand away and it stopped. When I touched it again, it moved right again. I touched the top of the image next, and it immediately changed as if the camera operator were on a boom that was rising into the air. When I pulled my hand away from the device, the image stopped moving. I touched it again and it rose again. At this point I realized my breathing had quickened appreciably and I was getting a little dizzy, so I forced myself to take slow, measured breaths.

As the image cleared the surrounding buildings, I saw the unmistakable shape of an obelisk that could only be the Washington Monument in DC. I touched the left side just inside the edge, and the camera moved left. As I continued to touch it, the Capitol Building came into view. Live cams on the internet that could be adjusted from a computer were common, but they were nothing like this. For one thing, the image quality was nothing less than superb. In fact, it was more like a window than an electronic image.

I had a sudden thought and reached out towards the device. My finger met a more-or-less expected resistance at the center of the image. So much for that dumb idea, I thought as I pulled my arm back. But the image had seemed so lifelike that it really appeared like I could put my hand right into it. You never know for sure until you try, I told myself, but if my hand had gone through the paper, I would definitely be on my way to the psych hospital for an examination.

Thinking I would hold it up close, I reached out and lifted the edge of the paper off the wall, but as the paper came free, the image disappeared. I was alarmed, thinking I might have broken it. As I held it in my hands, it again looked like an ordinary piece of paper. "Oh God, oh God," I said under my breath as a sort of prayer that I hadn't destroyed the electronics by removing the paper without turning off the device first, although I didn't even know how to power the unit down. I put it back on the wall, thinking it might work again if it was perfectly vertical, and I was horrified when it failed to illuminate.

I thought back to what I'd done originally, then reached out and placed my thumb lightly against the top right corner. When it didn't illuminate, I became really upset. Then I realized that I had originally aligned the sheet vertically like a book, but when I'd placed it against the wall this time, I had aligned it horizontally like a television or computer monitor. When I reached out and touched the top left corner, the device lit up instantly. The image flashed for a fraction of a second as it realigned for horizontal projection, then stabilized. Again, I was seeing the Capitol Building from a great distance. I breathed a great sigh of relief.

"So removing the paper from the wall doesn't damage it," I said to myself, "it merely deactivates it. And placing it against the wall again doesn't automatically reactivate it." I sat there looking at the device for several minutes before muttering breathlessly, "There has to be more control than just shifting the image right, left, up, or down."

As I bent closer to examine the device, I noticed a row of tiny light-grey squares that I hadn't noted previously. They were along the bottom border just inside the image area. Touching the leftmost one caused a numeric keypad icon to appear as a superimposed semi-transparent image over the normal image. A flashing row of numbers appeared at the top of the keyboard almost immediately. Before touching the device again, I grabbed a piece of regular scrap paper and recorded the numbers. Then, as I touched a value on the keypad, the first number in the display area changed. More importantly, the background image changed radically. The Capitol Building faded away and was replaced by a pastoral scene with grazing sheep. A farmer on an ancient tractor could be seen plowing a field in the far background. I keyed in the former number and was instantly back to Washington, D.C. When I touched the tiny square again, the superimposed keypad disappeared, giving a clear picture of Washington again, and I knew I had just made considerable progress in understanding how the device was manipulated.

I considered my next move carefully, then touched each of the tiny squares in succession, writing down the numbers displayed on the screen before touching the next. The three squares on the rightmost side didn't affect the keypad numbers. Touching them simply changed their color. One was either black or red, another was black or green, and the third was black or blue. When I reached the end of the squares, the row of numbers I'd recorded on the scrap paper read, 38-54-366-77-01-418-163-86-03-26-2014-14-26-12.

Jumping up, I rushed to my living room to retrieve a CD, then returned to the kitchen. As I loaded the disc into my laptop, a World Atlas program opened up. I entered 38° 54' 366" and 77° 01' 418" into the boxes on the opening screen. Instantly, the computer produced a street address in Washington, confirming what I'd suspected. When I entered the address of my apartment in New York City into my laptop, it responded with latitude and longitude coordinates for the house. I held my breath for a few seconds before entering the coordinates into the viewer using the pop-up keypad. As the last digit was entered, the image morphed to show rooftops disappearing off into the haze beneath an overcast sky. I touched the bottom of the image and the view lowered until I was looking at the site of the explosion, from inside the area. Although the result was the one I was hoping for, I couldn't stop my lower jaw from trembling or my breathing from quickening again when I saw it. After a few more seconds, I touched the seventh square and changed the numbers on the keypad from 163 to 343. The view instantly swung around one-hundred-eighty degrees to point directly at my house. The plywood-covered third floor window with the foot-square opening protected by clear plastic could belong to no other.

I let my arm drop to my side as I stared dumbfounded at the image on the screen. Google offered map images of streets on the internet, but they weren't remotely real time. In fact, they might be a couple of years old before being updated.

Since first activating the viewer my heart had been racing wildly, but now it was beating so hard that it threatened to burst from my chest, and I realized I was hyperventilating again. As I again worked to get my breathing under control, I knew that what I was seeing was impossible. It was totally, undeniably, indisputably, irrefutably impossible. Yet, there it was in front of me.

I put a shaky hand to my forehead and was surprised to find how much I was perspiring. My mouth felt as dry as the Sahara. Grabbing a stack of paper napkins, I wiped my face, stood up straight and walked to the refrigerator. Taking a cold beer from the bottom shelf, I drank it down in almost one swallow. Then I leaned against the sink counter and stared at the image of my apartment building. I recognized neighbors as they passed by on the sidewalk out front. It was a real-time image from a camera that didn't exist, shooting from an empty lot. But since it could be instantly transported to any other place simply by entering the map coordinates, 'camera' didn't begin to describe it.

"This is a window in space," I finally said aloud, as if saying it would help me accept the evidence of my own eyes. "It might even be…"

I walked to the image without finishing the sentence and pressed the square that brought up a keypad reading of 2014. I hesitated for just a second, then entered the number 1004. Almost instantly, I was looking at a forest.

"Idiot! You went too far," I said reproachfully.

As I changed the number to 1904, the image changed to one that showed people dressed in turn-of-the-century clothes as horse-drawn carriages passed by my house. The street was paved with cobblestones, and my building looked brand new. I grabbed another beer from the refrigerator and chugged it down even faster than the first, then sat down to contemplate this discovery.

"It's not a window in space— it's a window in time," I said breathlessly as I stared at the image on the device. "This is worth millions. Maybe hundreds of millions. Billions! My money problems are over. I'll be able to start my own publishing company and never again face the heartbreak of a rejection letter."

Then the realities began to sink in and I started hyperventilating again.

"My God," I said aloud as I jumped up and began to pace madly around my small kitchen. If anybody learned about this, I'd be dead. The government agencies involved in spying and collecting information would kill to get their hands on this, and no crime syndicate would hesitate to kill me for it because they needed to prevent the government from learning secrets such as where all the skeletons were buried— literally. And it wouldn't be limited to the U.S. Government. Any government would kill to possess this. Hell, any politician would kill for this. They'd be able to spy on their opponents in order to learn of scandals that could lead to defeat in an election, or simply to learn the opponent's strategy so they could develop a counter strategy. For that matter, any big corporation would kill to own a device that allowed them to spy on their competition. And wealthy individuals would also kill to possess this, either to spy on others or keep others from spying on them. Then a new thought struck me. Why would it be limited to wealthy people? Everyone had secrets they didn't want others to learn. And what if someone got their hands on this, duplicated the hardware, and turned them out like iPads? A device like this meant no more secrets, anywhere, anytime, ever again. It would throw the entire world into chaos.

We're not ready for a world without secrets. Oh yeah, oh yeah, I'm dead. And someone already knows I have this.

I stopped pacing and ran to the bedroom again for a look outside. There was still no one in sight other than the normal street traffic.

"So where are they?" I mumbled to myself nervously. "Why haven't they come? Why aren't they breaking down my door to get it back? Why have they let me live this long?"

I returned to my kitchen and paced frantically as I considered my options. I decided I had just two. I could either destroy the device and get rid of whatever was left or keep it and live in fear for as long as I had it. I knew that if I was smart, I would do as the two emails had advised. I would destroy the viewer before someone destroyed me to get it. But while it was easy to say 'destroy it,' it was not so easy to actually do it. How could anyone simply destroy the greatest technological wonder of all time? How could I deprive mankind of all the benefits it offered? Yet, how could I prevent mankind from abusing the power of the device and destroying itself? On a personal level, how could I own it and stay alive?

I finally plopped heavily into the chair, my decision made.

I grinned wryly as I said aloud, "I can't tell anybody about this if I want to survive. How about that, Colton? You've just found the greatest technological wonder of the world, and you can't tell anyone about it. You can't even write about it because someone might put two and two together."

I had to refocus my mind, so I reached out to the viewer and entered 2060 into the year keypad. The image changed to static.

"Does that mean I can't see the future or that there will be no future because the world has destroyed itself?"

Changing the year to 2020 presented a similar screen of static, so I reset it to the present year and changed the month value to the next month. Static still filled the screen. Lastly I changed the time on the keypad to just two minutes ahead. Again, only static filled the viewer. Either the world came to an end in one minute or I couldn't see into the future, only the past and present.

"Guess I won't be getting rich through the stock market, at the track or by winning the lottery."

As the present caught up to the time I'd entered into the keypad, an image suddenly materialized on the viewer. I was again seeing the scene outside my apartment building. I slowly adjusted the numbers on the keypad and the event window moved into my house and right into my kitchen. I watched myself adjusting the viewer until I could pinpoint exactly where the event window was located. Then I stood up and walked through that point in the kitchen. I neither felt nor even sensed anything as the image went dark when my body encountered the unseen window. As I passed beyond the window location, the original image, sans my body, reappeared.

"No one will ever have a clue that someone is watching them," I said aloud. "Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. The government would kill me or even wipe out the entire City of New York in an instant to get their hands on this."

I felt better for having made my decision, but I wondered if I would ever feel safe again. I hoped I didn't become like the neurotic conspiracy theorists who lived in a constant state of paranoia, but being aware of the danger, I wondered if there was any way to avoid it.

* * *

Over the next day and a half, I hardly left the kitchen. Only several quick bathroom breaks and the need for reference books took me briefly away from the device. I learned I could prepare food and eat while never missing a second of viewing time. The wonders offered by the viewer tugged at me as cocaine must tug at an addict. Using my World Atlas software and history books to determine the coordinates and dates, I watched as Christopher Columbus reached the New World for the first time. He was obviously anxious to be the first to step ashore, but history never recorded that as he leapt from a small boat, a wave struck him from behind. It caused him to trip on his cape, or perhaps his sword, and fall into the surf. Three of his men jumped in to pick him up as the rest howled with laughter until he glared at them. He looked more like a drowned rat than a conquering hero as he scrambled ashore and claimed the land for the King and Queen of España.

I next watched the horrifying destruction of Pompeii and the abhorrent deaths in the Coliseum in Rome. I watched as Hannibal crossed the Alps and Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. I saw Washington crossing the partially frozen Delaware and Chicago burn in the Great Fire. I could almost feel the tremors from the earthquake of 1906 that destroyed much of San Francisco, and I watched from the stage in Ford's Theater as President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

I was so caught up in viewing both the celebrated and horrendous moments of history that it was a full day before I thought to view the important moments in my own history. I began by watching my birth. To tell the truth, it was a little disgusting. Okay, it was a lot disgusting. That was my mother, after all. I loved her dearly, so seeing the pain my birth imposed came with great anguish. However, those feelings were washed away the instant it was over and I saw the wide smile on her face as the nurse placed me in her arms.

I moved on to my first birthday party after that. It had occurred long before I was able to understand and remember such events, so I had no recollection of it, although I recognized the family kitchen. I did remember my first day at school, but not how completely dorky I looked. Of course, in my defense, all the other kids looked just as bad.

Then I searched for and finally found images of my first kiss with someone other than a relative. I remembered it well enough but not the exact date it had happened. Susan Clarkson looked scared to death, and I hadn't known she hadn't shut her eyes the entire time.

Over the next few hours I looked at family and friends through good times and bad, but I left a key event for last. Two years after I had graduated from college, my folks were in Northern California on vacation. They died on a highway when a tractor trailer slammed into their rented car. I had never received any information beyond the official accident report, which simply stated that the truck had hit them from behind and run up over the car, crushing them just before the car erupted into flames, and the two vehicles then impacted a slow-moving truck just ahead of my parents' car.

Through tear-filled eyes I was able to finally ascertain that my dad was in no way responsible. He and my mom were caught in a fog that limited visibility to mere feet. Dad was driving at an appropriate speed, but the driver of the tractor trailer coming up behind him was driving much too fast for road conditions and was solely responsible for the accident. I felt no sorrow that he also died in the tragedy, although I was sad for his family.

I watched the accident over and over again from every angle until I could no longer bear to see it again.

I finally turned the viewer off and used a napkin to dry my eyes and face, but I just couldn't leave the device off. I had to see more. I couldn't stand to watch my folks die again, but there were other important moments in history I wanted to see.

Through further experimentation with the viewer, I learned that I could mark a subject or object by touching any of the three squares that changed colors and then touching the screen to indicate what I wished to mark. The viewer would then follow whoever or whatever was tagged until I again turned the square to black. It eliminated the coordinate adjustment effort normally required to follow a subject, and I could just sit back and watch as I would a television set. By using more than one square to mark different people, I could then jump to times when the tagged individuals got together again by activating both or all three squares. To cancel the assignment for any individual or object, I had only to touch the square three times in a row within five seconds. Learning that the viewer had intelligent features far beyond those I'd previously discovered made the term viewer seem overly simplistic. I needed a more descriptive name for it, but nothing seemed appropriate. So for the time being, I would simply refer to it as a gizmo.

After some thirty-six hours of almost non-stop viewing, my eyes were bloodshot and I could barely keep them open. I finally bowed to the inevitable and turned off the gizmo, sleeping for almost fourteen hours.

* * *

When I was once again rested and alert, I resisted the urge to turn on the gizmo. Instead, I turned to my computer and diligently began to apply myself to answering the emails that had accumulated. As usual, there was nothing from the publishers to whom I'd submitted my manuscripts, but I had a lot of mail from friends and fans to answer. I expected to see something from the mysterious emailer who knew I had the gizmo, but there was nothing new. I would have loved to open a dialog with the sender. Aside from wanting to know how he or she was able to send messages without leaving a routing path, I wanted to know where the gizmo came from. Moreover, I wanted to discover why I should fear for my safety if I kept the gizmo but never told anyone. Since discovering the secrets of the device, I hadn't seriously contemplated its destruction. What's more, the failure of anyone to show up to demand the return of the viewer had emboldened me. I felt that since I had found it lying in the street it was mine now.

"Finder's keepers," I said aloud. "For anyone who might be listening, it's mine now and I'm keeping it."

With my email answered, my attention naturally returned to the gizmo. I knew I would have to strictly regulate the hours I used it because I could easily park myself in front of it and never leave except to prepare food and use the bathroom. But since I wasn't independently wealthy, I had to make a living. That meant getting back to the story I had begun. It all seemed so utterly trivial now after having personally witnessed the greatest moments in history, but I had little choice. It was either that or trying to find a regular job.

* * *

I managed to direct my efforts back into my former routine and limit my viewing to just four hours each evening. Fearing that someone might come into the house to take the gizmo, I began to fold it up after each use and store it in a small cardboard box that had formerly held pocket stick-matches. The matchbox was the most innocuous container I could find in my apartment. At night, it sat on my dresser with my spare change, but during the day it was always in my pocket. Someone finding a blank piece of folded paper in a matchbox shouldn't pay it any mind, unless they knew what they were looking for. I wished I could write something on the page that would make it appear even more innocent, but I had to play the hand I was dealt.

I had spent hours trying to figure a way to make money with the device, but so far I had drawn a blank, other than possibly writing history books. But since I hadn't had any luck getting published so far, I wondered what chance I might have writing history books that would frequently dispute universally accepted writings. As far as I could determine, I was the only person alive who really knew what happened to Judge Joseph Force Crater on that day in 1930 when he stepped into a waiting taxicab and was never heard from again. Books had been published that claimed to document what really happened, but they didn't have a clue. And who would ever believe me if I identified the gunman on the grassy knoll in Dallas, or what really happened to Princess Anastasia of Russia on the night the Bolsheviks murdered Tsar Nicholas II, his family, doctor, and several servants.

I knew I could learn secrets and then blackmail people and companies, but that could be very dangerous in addition to being illegal and amoral. I also ruled out corporate espionage. Again, it was dangerous and illegal. I could use the device to learn corporate secrets and then trade with insider information, but if I had much success I would quickly come under the scrutiny of the SEC and other regulatory agencies. Using the gizmo, I could follow missing treasure ships until they sank and learn their locations, but it required a huge investment and much time to recover treasure from the sea floor even when knowing exactly where it was. I also thought about possibly tracking down the Lost Dutchman mine in Arizona, but again that would take more money and time than I had. I remembered how large the reward had been for Osama bin Laden, but trying to bring such heavyweight criminals to justice would bring me under the scrutiny of the FBI, CIA, NSA, and a dozen super-secret federal organizations and military units.

* * *

After days of trying to figure out how the gizmo could quickly solve my financial woes, I hit upon a plan. It was perfectly legal, and I would even be performing a community service. Over the weekend I spent some time doing research on the internet, then took a downtown bus on Monday morning.

Chapter Four

Verifying the address on the page I'd ripped from my home telephone directory, I entered the doors beneath a hanging sign that advertised bail bonds.

The lobby held just two elevator banks, mailboxes, and locked, unmarked doors, but there was a wide stairway on the left. One flight up, a sign on an entrance door advertised 'Edward Harris - Bail Bonds.' The office, like the building itself, looked like something from the nineteen forties. The movie The Maltese Falcon came to mind. I could almost imagine bumping into Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre on their way out to a saloon to grab a liquid lunch during a break in filming.

Two women and a man, all three speaking on phones, sat at desks behind a chest-high counter. I took a seat in one of the cheap, vinyl-covered chairs placed against the wall that faced the counter to wait until one of the three was free.

After several minutes, one of the women stood up and approached the counter. She was middle-aged and it appeared she had long ago ceased to care about maintaining a meticulous appearance, but at least she was wearing modern clothing. She looked at me over her eyeglasses and asked, "What's your problem, champ?"

"I'd like to see Mr. Harris, or whoever runs this office."

"What about?"

"I'm a skip tracer." I had found the term on the internet and hoped it would get me an interview.

She seemed amused as her eyes traveled from my feet to my head before fixating on my face. "Hang on," she said as she walked back to her desk. Picking up the phone receiver, she pushed a single button and then said, "There's a guy out here who wants to see you. Says he's a skip tracer. He's got the height and build for it, but he has the eyes of an accountant." She listened for a minute, then said to me, "What's your name, pal?"

"Colton James."

"Name's Colton James." She listened for a couple of seconds, then replaced the receiver onto the cradle and walked back to the counter. Pointing, she said, "His office is down that hallway. First door on the left."

The woman pressed a button beneath the counter and a buzzer sounded as I rose and walked the way she had pointed. She held the button until I had swung the gate open, then without a further glance backward she returned to her desk and sat down. I released the wooden gate after I passed through and it slammed back into a locked position.

As I sauntered down the hall, I identified and then entered a door marked 'E. Harris.' A middle-aged, thin, slightly balding man sat behind a metal desk that looked older than the two of us put together. It was covered with papers and official-looking documents.

"Ya got two minutes, kid," Harris said brusquely as he continued to shuffle papers on the desk. "What can I do for ya?"

"It's what I can do for you. I specialize in finding people nobody else can locate. It doesn't matter how cold the trail is. I can find anyone, anywhere."

"I already got all the recovery people I need."

"Do they guarantee they can find anybody?"

"Nobody can guarantee that."

"I can."

Mr. Harris stopped shuffling papers and looked up at me. "Define guarantee."

"If they're still alive, I can find any skip within five days."

"And if you can't find them you just say they're dead?"

"No, if I say they're dead, I'll produce incontrovertible evidence of that within thirty days. But it'll cost you an extra grand."

Harris leaned back in his chair and lit a cigar, studying my face in silence for several minutes. Finally, he said, "Alright, I'll give you a chance. If you can deliver one of my skips within five days, I'll start throwing some work your way."

"I don't deliver. I find. You probably have some goons who'd have trouble finding their lunch in a paper bag. I'll provide the directions and they pick up the skip. I get fifty percent of the bounty; they split the rest, unless you make separate arrangements with them. Whatever you do, I still get fifty percent of the recovery fee."

Harris looked at me for several seconds as if trying to figure if I was nuts or on the level. "Okay, pal. We'll see what you can do." Shuffling through some papers on his desk, he pulled a sheet out and read from it. "Scott 'Peewee' Smith, charged with attempted murder, skipped out after he was arraigned. My guys can't find him. Locate him for me before Thursday and you get a grand for your effort."


Harris nodded. "Cash."

I took out a small notebook and pen, and wrote down the name. "Description?"

Harris read from the paper, "Caucasian male, six foot three, two hundred fifty pounds." Glancing up at me, he added, "If you put on twenty pounds, you could pass for his brother."

"I'm only six two and two ten. Arraignment date, time, and court?"

"January twelfth, ten-thirty a.m., at the Criminal Court Building on Broadway."

"Who do I call when I find him?"

"Call here."

"Okay, I'll talk to you later today."

"Yeah, right," he said with a chuckle.

"You got someone who can pick him up tonight if he's still in Manhattan?"

"Sure," Harris said chuckling, "but you're not going to find him by tonight."

"I'll talk to you later, Mr. Harris. Be ready to pick up your skip."

I stood up and left the office. Harris just sat there, grinning like a fool and shaking his head.

I visited five more bail bondsmen but failed to get any other assignments, so I headed home to work on the deal I'd landed. It only took me an hour to find the right courtroom and tag Smith. Advancing the time to the present, I learned that Smith was hiding out in Brooklyn, watching a video replay of a New York Jets football game. I wrote down the address and called the bail bond office.

"Mr. Harris? Colton James. I have a location for you."

"What? Already?"

"Yes. Do you have your people ready?"

"Not yet. You're absolutely sure you've found Smith?"


"You're ah, a bit faster than I expected."

"How soon do you think they'll be ready?"

"How many will I need?"

"Smith is alone right now. I haven't had time to find out if he has any support, but it doesn't look like it. I'd say at least three. Four would be better."

"It'll take me a couple of hours to get four men here."

"Have them assemble in Brooklyn at the corners of Dumont and Rockaway. When they're ready, I'll give them the address and stay on the line while they move in. Give them the cell phone number I gave you."

"You'll be there?"

"I'll be watching and direct the capture, but I won't otherwise participate or even reveal my location."

"Uh, you're absolutely sure you found the right guy?"

"I'm sure."

"Okay. My guy will call when they're set."

It was almost four hours before I got the call-back. It was after six and would be getting dark soon.

"This is Vinny. Is this Mr. James?"

"Yeah. Call me Colt, Vinny. Are you ready to move in?"

"We're set."

"How many are you?"


"Okay. The skip is watching television on the second floor of a three-family house on Pacific off Rockaway. There's no exit up there except the fire escape in the front or through the roof hatch, and it's a two-story drop to the back yard. The buildings are all attached so it'll be tough getting to him if he dogs out the back. I'll watch him and let you know where he goes. Call me as soon as you're ready to move in and I'll give you an update."

"Where are you, Colt?"

"Not too far away, but I can only help with the spotting."

I gave him directions to the house and then sat down to watch events play out.

My cell phone rang when Vinny was ready. I told him the skip was still watching television on the second floor, unaware of what was about to take place. Vinny was wearing a Bluetooth headset phone and would be in constant contact.

As the four enforcement agents busted in the downstairs door, Smith leapt up from the sofa.

"Smith is up," I said into the phone. "He's got a double-barrel break-action shotgun aimed at the door of the apartment." I wished I had a second device so I could see what was going on in the hallway. Rather than moving the image, I continued to watch Smith.

"We're on the second floor," Vinny said. "Is he still here?"

"Yes. Be careful. He's still pointing the shotgun at the apartment door." I moved the event window quickly to the hallway.

The situation was tense as Vinny stood to one side and banged on the door with a broom handle, calling for Smith to come out. I could hear because of the cell phone connection. It was a standoff. The enforcement agents didn't want to move in and get shot, and Smith didn't appear predisposed to surrendering. The situation changed quickly when Vinny used the broom handle to shake the doorknob. Believing someone was standing in front of the door, Smith fired both barrels, blowing a large hole in the center of the door and shattering the broom handle.

I quickly moved the window back into the room. "He's empty," I said, "but he's trying to reload."

As soon as they knew the gun was temporarily empty, one of the enforcement men kicked in the door. Smith dropped the shells he had been fumbling to get into the barrels and swung the shotgun at the head of the nearest man. He missed as the enforcement agent ducked, and he didn't get another try. The four men were on him in a second. After a short struggle, Smith was down and handcuffed.

With the excitement over, Vinny said into the headset, "Colt?"

"Yeah Vinny, I'm here. Good work."

"Thanks for the information about the shotgun. Where are you watching from?"

"I'm not too far away. Glad I could help. Good job, Vinny. Tell Mr. Harris I'll be down to see him tomorrow."

"Will do, Colt. Thanks again."

I turned off the cell phone. As Vinny and his men dragged Smith down the front stairs outside the house, the police arrived, no doubt in response to a call about the shotgun blast. As curious people began appearing from neighboring homes, Vinny showed the uniformed cop a badge in his wallet and a copy of the paperwork from the court. After the cop filled out a report, the four enforcement agents were permitted to take Smith to the station house and turn him over. As a known flight risk, the court wouldn't be setting bail again.

I had just earned a thousand dollars for a few hours' work. I felt like dancing around my flat.

* * *

I arrived at the bail bond office a little before nine the next morning. The woman at the counter buzzed me through without my having to say anything. I walked to Harris' office, knocked once, and entered.

"Good morning, Mr. Harris."

"Morning, James. I have to admit you surprised me yesterday. How did you find Smith so quickly?"

"Just a matter of knowing where to look and who to pay for information."

"I see. Well, I can't argue with success. Here's your money," Harris said, handing me an envelope.

I opened it and counted the fifties. "It seems to be a bit light. There's only five hundred here."

"That's what we agreed on. Fifty percent for you and fifty for the men I had to send for the pickup."

"My share was supposed to be a thousand."

"No, a thousand was the entire bounty."

"You said, 'Find him before Thursday and you get a grand for your effort.' I expect another five hundred."

"You misunderstood."

I sighed wearily. There was nothing in writing, so it would be my word against that of Harris. "Very well, Mr. Harris," I said as I turned to leave.

"Wait, I have another job for you."

I stopped, turned, and stared at him intently. "I don't work for people who cheat me. I checked the paperwork on Smith. You were out a hundred thousand if I hadn't found him for you. The recovery fee should have been ten thousand, and my share would have been five thousand. I agreed to take the case for a mere thousand solely to acquaint you with my services. Then you want to chisel me out of half that paltry amount. Good day, Mr. Harris."

I was almost to the locked gate in the counter when Harris caught up with me. He'd obviously thought I was only posturing at first.

"Wait, wait. C'mon back a minute, kid."

The office staff stared after us as I allowed Harris to pull me back into his office.

"Okay, here's another five hundred," he said as he produced the money from a cashbox stuffed with bills. "I don't owe it to you, mind you, but I want you to find another skip for me, so I'll pay it."

I counted the proffered bills and added them to the original envelope before re-stuffing it into my pocket. "Who's the next one?" I asked as I took out my small notebook and a pen.

"Desmond Sutton. Male, black, five foot eight, one hundred fifty pounds."

"Arraignment date, time, and court?"

"August second, two p.m., at the Criminal Court Building on Broadway."


"Possession of narcotics with intent to sell."

"Bail amount?"

Harris hesitated but knew it was public record and could be learned with a simple phone call. "Fifty thousand."

"Very well. I'll find your skip for twenty-five hundred dollars. That's twenty-five hundred to me, regardless of what you pay Vinny and the others."

"Twenty-five hundred? No way. I'll give you a thousand."

"Twenty-five hundred, or I take my services elsewhere. As I said, the first find was only to introduce you to what I can do. I find the ones no one else can find. Don't waste my time, Mr. Harris."

Harris mumbled under his breath. "Okay. Twenty-five hundred."

"I'll call you as soon as I find him."

"The twenty-five hundred is only good if he's still in the city. If he's out of the state, the price drops to a thousand."

"I'll call if he's still in the city."

"Call no matter where he is."

"Not unless the price remains at twenty-five hundred."

"It costs more if I have to send people out of state to get him."

"Forty-seven thousand, five hundred more?"

"Call and I'll tell you what I'll pay when I know where he is."

* * *

I could have called an hour later but I waited for two days. I was just about to call Harris when he called me.

"I thought you could find anybody?"

"I can."

"But you haven't found Sutton."

"I located him two days ago. He's out of state though."

"I told you to call no matter where he is."

"You also said you wouldn't pay the twenty-five hundred if he was out of state."

"I'll give you two grand."

"I'm hanging up now Mr. Harris. Call me if you decide to pay the whole twenty-five hundred. It won't cost you very much to retrieve him."

"What's that mean? Is he close? Connecticut?"

"Good-bye, Mr. Harris."

"Wait. Wait a minute, goddammit."

"I'm listening."

"Okay, I'll pay you twenty-two fifty."

"You're getting closer to learning where your guy is, but you're not there yet."

I could hear Harris muttering to himself. Finally, "Okay, twenty-five hundred. But he'd better be close."

"Have your boys ready to roll at nine tomorrow morning. Sutton's in Newark. Not much further from your office than Brooklyn."

"Newark? Why didn't you call? That's not outta state."

"Last I heard, Newark was in Jersey."

"It's just across the Hudson, for christssake. You didn't have to hold me up. I would have paid the twenty-five hundred if I'd known he was in Newark."

"Then you've got nothing to gripe about."

"How do you know he'll be there tomorrow morning?"

"He works all night peddling drugs on the streets. If he isn't arrested tonight, he'll be sacked out and dead to the world by nine a.m. Your guys should be ready to move in by ten. That'll give him time to really fall into a deep sleep. If they play it right, they'll have him cuffed before he's even awake. I'll fax your pickup team a layout of the house."

"A layout of the house? Where'd you get that?"

"It's just a crude diagram, not architectural plans."

"Okay, I'll call Vinny. Four men be enough?"

"If they're the same guys as last time— more than adequate."

"Good. You'll spot for them like you did in Brooklyn? They said you saved their asses."

"I'll be looking on and giving help."

"Good. I'll talk to you tomorrow."

* * *

When Vinny called from Newark the following morning, I gave him the address. I had already confirmed that Sutton was sacked out in the house, and I had marked the layout to show the room where Sutton slept. I sent the image to Vinny's smartphone and told him to call again when they were ready to move in.

I was enjoying my fourth cup of coffee when my cell phone rang.

"We're ready to move in, Colt."

"Okay, Vinny. He's sleeping soundly."

"Right. We're moving."

I watched the sleeping form as the enforcement agents moved in. They were in the bedroom before Sutton was alert enough to understand they were there. He was reaching for a pistol when the first man jumped on his prone form. I had constantly reassured them that Sutton posed no threat until they were in the bedroom and had told them where he kept his gun. After they had Sutton in the van, I signed off and put the gizmo away.

* * *

Harris had the money waiting for me when I arrived the next morning and didn't play any games this time. He had figured out that I wouldn't stand for it, and he wanted me willing to find more skips for him. He couldn't argue with the success he'd seen and the super low prices he had paid.

"Anybody else right now?" I asked.

"Not right now. I'll give you a call when I do."

"Right. You know how to get in touch. See you."

"If you need something to keep busy with, Triple A Bail Bonds could use you to find one of their skips. I spoke with Marsh Adams last night. I owed him a favor so I told him I'd pass the message on to you. I gave you quite a buildup."

"Thanks. I'll stop over before I head home. Pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Harris."

Harris scowled. "You mean it's a pleasure taking my money."

I smiled. "That too."

I smiled and waved to the three people in the outer office as I left, and they waved back, indicating a sort of acceptance as one of the group now.

It was a two-block walk to the other bail bondsman's office. As soon as Marsh Adams learned I was there, he came out of his office and pumped my hand and arm like I was delivering the Publisher's Clearing House Sweepstakes Grand Prize.

"Thanks for coming by, James. I'm in a bad way. I have just a day and a half to find my skip or I forfeit a hundred large. Harris says you're the best he's ever seen."

"I'll help you if I can. Harris told you I only locate, right?"

"He said you spot for the guys while they move in and alert them to possible danger."

"Yes, but I don't assist in the actual recovery beyond support information."

"That's acceptable. Harris said your fee is five thousand."

"My fee varies with the skip and the urgency. For your man, who has to be located within twenty-four hours if your people are to have enough time to retrieve him, my fee will be ten grand, cash, payable the day after he's picked up."

Adams hesitated for just a couple of seconds. He was probably trying to figure out if he should negotiate, but then agreed. I wrote down all the information and left after telling Mr. Adams to have his people ready to go tomorrow. If the skip was local, they'd pick him up. If he was out of the area, they'd travel to where he was.

It only took me fifteen minutes to track down the skip using the gizmo. I was getting better at finding my way around the courthouse and tagging the skips. It turned out that the wanted man was hiding out in a rooming house on Staten Island. It shouldn't be too difficult to take him down if he was still there the next morning.

* * *

The third pickup went as smoothly as the last one. The man didn't offer much resistance after he found four guns aimed his way. When he was cuffed and locked in the van, I signed off and went to buy a newspaper.

If Adams paid me, I'd still have a sizable nest egg for my three recoveries after setting aside a chunk for taxes. My immediate financial troubles would be over. I could relax and work on my book, returning to track people down whenever my funds ran low again. I wasn't placing myself in danger and hadn't had to show anyone how I located the skips. Life was good again.

* * *

I picked up my payment for finding the third skip the following morning. Adams had the money ready and didn't try to short me.

"That was fast work, James. Harris was right about how good you are. How'd you find my guy so quickly? I've had people looking for him since he failed to appear for the hearing."

"No offense, Mr. Adams, but if I told you how I do it, you wouldn't need me anymore."

Adams smiled. "Okay, James. Fair enough. I hope I can call upon you again?"

"Sure, Mr. Adams. You have my number. Call me whenever you have a skip worth five grand or more."

"I'll do that."

* * *

I received a letter from the city the next day, informing me that my car was at an impound lot and asking if I wished to reclaim it. I sent the letter back telling them to junk it since the damage was so extensive that repairs weren't justified.

With my newfound wealth, I felt comfortable spreading a little around at Murphy's. For the first time in more than two months, I ordered dinner out instead of cooking for myself. Their corned beef and cabbage, as always, was delicious. Billy Boyles dropped in after getting off work and we hoisted a few mugs of cold beer together.

"Welcome back, bro."

"Thanks. It's nice to have a few bucks in my pocket again."

"Nothing like it. Whatcha doing for pocket change?"

"Not much. I just arranged a few meetings between the right people."

"You arranged meetings? You mean like a sales broker?"

"Uh, yeah, sort of. Anyway, I've made enough so that I can continue writing for a few more months."

"I'll drink to that. Here's to your first bestseller." After a large gulp, he added, "Got enough to ask Kathy out now?"

"Maybe," I said, "as long as I don't go wild. No midnight flights to Monte Carlo or anything like that."

"Then just start with lunch downtown and see where it takes you. She leaves the museum about noon every day."

"How do you know that?"

"She mentioned it once. We were talking about the restaurants near the museum and if the food and service is good."

"You playing matchmaker, Billy?"

Billy grinned. "Well— maybe a little. I think you guys would be great for each other. You're both the brainy sort, but you're also real people— not snooty like. And you could do a lot worse."

"Okay, Cupid, I'll invite her to lunch this week."

"Good. Now tell me about this brokerage business."

I stared down at my beer for a few seconds. I was dying to tell somebody, and Billy was my best friend, but I didn't want to put him into the possible danger I feared might befall me at any time. "Ah, it's nothing fancy," I said nonchalantly, "but it's complicated. It'll be easier to show you in a few weeks after I've had a chance to work it a bit more. I'll put together some charts so I can explain it easier and go over the whole thing with you then. Okay?"

"Sure, bud. If it's complicated I'll need a clear head anyway. Ready for another brewski?"

Chapter Five

Kathy Marin was just coming out of the museum as I was about to enter. My pulse began to quicken as soon as I saw her. She was as gorgeous as ever. I'd never seen her without makeup, but I believed she was just as beautiful without it. The tailored business suit she was wearing today left little to the imagination, and I could tell she took great pains to always appear her best. We both stopped and looked at one another.

"Hi, Kathy."

"Colt. How have you been?"

"Getting by. How about you?"

"About the same." After a few seconds of awkward silence she added, "I tried to contact you after the building explosion but I couldn't get through. I was worried for you, but I learned later that day that you weren't injured. Billy Boyles said your place is still livable."

"He told me he'd spoken with you."

"So what brings you down here?"



"I thought I'd drop in and say hi— maybe invite you to lunch or something."

"Then you're just in time because that's where I was going. Chinese okay?"


"Good. I've had a strange craving for scallops and broccoli all morning. There's a great little place about two blocks away."

"Lead the way."

We made small talk to catch up on events as we walked to the Chinese restaurant. We'd met at the wedding of a mutual friend the previous year and an instant friendship had formed. Although both of us were attending the wedding with other people, we had been seated next to one another at the reception and we spent the whole meal talking like old friends, much to the chagrin of our dates. Kathy had been involved until a few months previous, and I'd been living a solitary existence because of my dwindling bank account.

After the waitress took our order and brought us some tea, Kathy said, "I'm glad you dropped by. I hate eating alone, but all the girls at the museum had things to do today."

"I'm glad I dropped by also. I've wanted to see you again."

"I'm in the book."

"I know. It's just that I've been so— busy with my writing. I haven't gone out in months."

"Any luck yet?"

"Not yet. I still have hope though."

"You should. You have a talent for it."

"You've seen my stuff?" I asked incredulously.

"Billy gave me the address of the website where you post most of your stories and told me your pen names. I've read everything that's there, and I loved them all. They're exciting, clever, and heartwarming. I especially loved The Mystical Magicians of Loki-Tau."

"Thanks. That's one of my personal favorites, although All Ships Return to Base has been the most popular with my sci-fi fans."

"I've read the comments posted by readers. They really love your stuff. You deserve to be published."

"Those comments and the constant fan letters provided the motivation to become a professional writer. I can't think of anything I'd rather do with the rest of my life. I get so much fulfillment from writing stories that bring pleasure and enjoyment to my readers. Unfortunately, all the publishers I've contacted send me form letters telling me my stuff isn't marketable."

"That's ridiculous. Your stories are as good as anything I've ever purchased and better than a lot of the stuff being put out these days."

"I think so, but I'm prejudiced."

"Me too," Kathy said, then smiled softly.

I couldn't help but chuckle. "Too bad you're not in the publishing business. I could use a fan on the inside to beat a drum for me."

"I don't know anyone in the publishing business, but I'll see if any of the girls at work do."

"Thanks, Kathy. Ah, here's our food." As the waitress placed the dishes on the table, I added, "Smells delicious."

Near poverty had kept me from enjoying a good Chinese dinner during the past few months, and I enjoyed the meal immensely. More importantly, I relished the company of an intelligent and articulate friend. As we opened our fortune cookies after the dishes had been cleared away, I said, "This has been great. I'm glad we got together."

"Me too. I've been really hoping you'd call."

"I would have, but, uh..."

"But money has been tight?"

"Uh, yeah."

"Having money for a date isn't that important," she said.

"Uh, you don't understand. When a guy doesn't have enough money to show a special lady a good time, he feels sort of— impotent."

"You think I'm special?"

"Since the first moment we met."

"I'm glad. I think you're special also. If you don't have money, we could spend a day in the park or a museum."

"Your museum?"

She giggled. "No. One of the numerous other museums here in the city. I already spend too much time at mine."

"Would you like to go to dinner with me on Friday?"

"I'd love to," she said, then added quickly, "but I can't. I have to work."

"You have another job outside the museum?"

"No. I have to work at the museum."

I cast my eyes downward. "I have money for the date."

"Oh, Colton, it's not that. We're putting the final touches on a new exhibit. It opens a week from Friday, if we pass the test."


"The insurance company test. They want to check our security when the artwork is taken from the vault and put on display. I have to be there while the examination is conducted because of my position as Assistant Curator."

"I would think your insurance carrier examines your security on a regular basis."

"They do periodic checks, but this is special. We were scheduled to have the Von Waggermann collection after it left Philadelphia two years ago, but the entire tour was cancelled following the theft there."

"I think I heard about that theft. The thieves only got five paintings, didn't they?"

"Yes, but they were the most valuable works in the exhibit. The police never caught the thieves or recovered the paintings, and the insurance company paid off the claim, but the family was devastated by the loss. Most people in the art world have believed that the Von Waggermanns would never allow any part of their collection to be exhibited again. It's taken more than a year of letters and phone calls to convince them to let us have a small part of the collection. And we're the only ones they've approved so far. We've had our security triple checked by the best people in the business. The insurance representative will conduct his test on Friday night, and if he endorses us, the exhibit opens the following Friday. Otherwise it gives us a week to get into compliance."

"I can understand why the family would be hesitant to let the collection out again."

"Following the theft, they publicly said the collection would never be shown again. Since then I've been chipping away at their resolve. I finally convinced them that by hiding the magnificent paintings away in the family vault they were letting the criminals commit a second crime."

"Good tactic. Congratulations. May I come watch the test?"

"It's boring and there's not much to see. Why would you want to watch?"

"I'm a writer. To write about life, one must first experience it. You never know what small bits of trivia might help someday with a book."

Kathy smiled. "Okay. Come to the museum on Friday night at seven. I'll leave word that you're to be allowed in. And speaking of the museum, I have to be getting back."

Kathy reached for the check, but I put my hand on hers. "My treat."

"That's okay. I know money's tight for aspiring writers. Let me pay today."

"No, I invited you. Besides, I've picked up some money with a part-time job. I'm in good financial shape again."

"Are you sure?"

"I'm sure," I said as I dropped a decent tip on the table. "Let's go."

* * *

When I arrived at the museum Friday evening, the building was dark and the doors locked. I saw no other option than to pound on the front door with my fist. Finally, a guard appeared.

"The museum is closed for the evening, sir," the guard shouted at me through glass doors that seemed to be an inch thick. I could barely hear him.

"I'm Colton James," I screamed back. "Miss Kathleen Marin is expecting me."

The guard took out his keys and unlocked the door, then pushed it open. "Yes, sir," he said calmly. "Please come in. Miss Marin said you'd be here about now. Usually, our after-hours guests enter at the side entrance."

I smiled. "Sorry. I didn't know you had a side entrance."

"It's our delivery dock, sir. After hours it serves as the secure entrance for staff and visitors."

"I'll remember. Where's Miss Marin?"

"Follow me, sir," the guard said after relocking the door.

He led the way through the large museum past walls filled with paintings and dozens of freestanding exhibits, then up a wide marble staircase to the second floor. At last, we reached the place where the new exhibit was to be placed. About three dozen people stood watching as several employees carefully hung an enormous picture by an old master. I didn't recognize it, but I appreciated the artistic beauty and the magnificent old-world craftsmanship of the painting.

"Colton," Kathy said as I approached the group, "you made it. Welcome to the new Von Waggermann exhibit."

"Thank you for the invite," I said. Kathy was wearing a gorgeous, medium-blue cocktail dress. I think the style was what's called tea length. The top rose diagonally from the upper bust line at her left shoulder to cover her right shoulder, leaving the left shoulder and arm completely uncovered. A gauzy sort of fabric flowed from the right shoulder to the elbow. "Wow. You look incredible."

"Thank you. This is my 'lucky' cocktail dress. I'm praying everything goes well tonight."

I wondered if she was referring only to the test. Looking toward the workers hanging the picture, I said, "That painting is magnificent."

"That's the centerpiece of the exhibit. It's by Vermeer and is believed to have been painted between 1660 and 1664." As a gray-haired, distinguished-looking gentlemen turned to look at us, Kathy said, "Colton, this is my boss, Dr. Whitting."

Several other people also turned to face me as Dr. Whitting— seventy-five if he was a day— lifted a slight arm and extended a gnarled hand towards me. "How do you do, Mr. James? Allow me to introduce Mrs. Whitting, William Kovacs, and Beverly Palmer."

"How do you do," I said. "It's an honor to be here to see the exhibit before the general public." I nodded to the others.

"Miss Marin tells me you're an author."

"Yes, sir. An aspiring author anyway. I've written several books, and I'm trying to find someone to publish them. It's a bit like an artist trying to gain acceptance in the art world. Until you sell that first work, no one wants to know you."

"Just don't get discouraged. Like any artistic endeavor, it probably takes time."

"I won't, sir. I just hope it doesn't take as long to gain recognition as it took poor Jan Vermeer."

"Yes, it's a pity his genius wasn't recognized for more than two hundred years. So many of the great masters lived and died in virtual obscurity and poverty. If they weren't fortunate enough to find a wealthy patron, they had to work at other jobs, often very menial ones, to support their painting, sculpture, or musical composition."

"Colton has a part time job to support his writing," Kathy said. Turning to look at me, she added "But you never told me what it was."

I hesitated for a few seconds before saying, "I'm a skip tracer."

"Tracer?" Dr. Whitting said. "Is that some kind of art work?"

"No, it means he's a bounty hunter," Mr. Kovacs said.

"Bounty hunter?" Dr. Whitting said in a surprised voice. "Do you mean like in the Old West?"

"Not quite," I said. "I just track people who haven't appeared for their court date and return them to the justice system."

Kathy was looking at me like I'd just grown a third eye. "Isn't that dangerous?"

"It could be, but I just do the tracking work. Enforcement officers actually take the skip into custody."

The conversation was interrupted when one of the workers involved in hanging the artwork approached our little group and said, "Excuse me, Mr. Kovacs. We're ready to start now."

"Okay, Phil. Let's take it from the top."

Everyone in the room was asked to step out of the exhibit area while a series of tests were conducted. The alarm circuits would be tripped and reset more than a dozen times during the next several hours. The police had been notified of the testing.

"This is the most secure area of the museum," Kathy said quietly to me. "You have to walk through the entire building to get here and there aren't any outside accesses such as doors, windows, skylights, roof vents, or anything else. There are twelve cameras and dozens of high-tech, infrared, audio, and thermal sensors dedicated to just this exhibit space. We even have a few old-fashioned contact switches."

"Sounds secure," I said as I glanced at the walls and saw several of the security cameras she'd mentioned.

"It is. We've naturally complied with all requests made by the Von Waggermann family. Mr. Kovacs is the insurance company representative and Phil, the man who came to get Mr. Kovacks, is their top security guy. Both were responsible for signing off on the museum security for the paintings in Philadelphia, and they were extremely embarrassed by the theft. It cost their company fourteen million. They've vowed that nothing will happen this time."

It was almost midnight when the testing was finally completed. The people not associated with the security or insurance companies had spent their time drinking champagne, snacking on canapés, and talking in small groups, as would be the case at the opening of any large art show. I learned that most were generous contributors to the museum.

As Mr. Kovacs approached the group and extended his hand to Dr. Whitting, he said, "I'm happy to sign off on the system, Doctor. Phil can't find a single loophole that could be exploited."

"That's wonderful to hear, Mr. Kovacs. I hope the Von Waggermanns will be able to sleep soundly after receiving your report."

"I hope so too. I'm not so sure they trust me completely anymore, but we also have the written reports from the experts you hired to check the systems and correct any deficiencies they found. The boys are wrapping up, and we'll be ready to leave in a few minutes."

As Mr. Kovacs turned and started to walk briskly away, I excused myself and hurried after him. I managed to catch him before he reached the exhibit room.

From his perfectly trimmed hair to his alligator shoes, Kovacs projected an image of a top-level corporate executive in a large company. He was slender but not overly so, and while most New Yorkers appeared almost ghostlike after enduring months of freezing cold weather, his skin was evenly tanned. Either he spent a lot of time in tanning salons, or he had just returned from a vacation in the subtropics. My guess would be the latter. I had no trouble imagining him on a golf course in Hawaii. The other thing out of place was his eyes. He had cop's eyes.

"Mr. Kovacs, could I have a minute of your time, please?"

Kovacs stopped and turned to face me. "Of course, Mr— I'm sorry, I've forgotten your last name."

"It's James. Colton James."

"Of course. What can I do for you, Mr. James?"

"I understand you've never recovered the paintings from the Philadelphia theft."

Kovacs seemed to bristle at the mention of the robbery. "That's right. But I can assure you there will be no successful robbery here."

"I'm sure, and I don't mean to remind you of an unpleasant event, but I wondered if there was any reward being offered for the recovery of the stolen artwork. I remember Kathy mentioning that your company carried the policy and paid off the claim."

"Yes, that's right. We paid off after it became clear the art wouldn't be recovered. If you're thinking of trying to find it, let me inform you that the very best in the business have already had a go at it."

"That's not necessarily true. I haven't looked for the missing paintings."

Kovacs smiled at me condescendingly. "Mr. James, no offense, but we're not talking about support-payment deadbeats and parking-fine scofflaws here. These people did something that rarely happens anymore. They broke into a museum without tripping any alarms, managed to evade three guards who made patrols through the museum at random so they couldn't be timed, and left the museum without leaving a clue. They were never seen on any of the video monitors and never left a single fingerprint. At first we suspected it might be an inside job because it was so perfect, but we couldn't find anything to tie the theft to the guards, and all of them had been with the museum for years. They're still working there in fact."

"I don't track support-payment deadbeats or parking-fine scofflaws, Mr. Kovacs. I only track drug pushers, murderers, or other high-profile criminals."

Kovacs suddenly had a gleam in his eye. "Have you heard something about the location of the paintings? Are they on the market?"

"One hears a lot of things when dealing with criminals and their associates. I don't know anything yet, but I can find out, if it's worth my while."

"I don't expect you'll learn anything new, but if you do learn something that leads us to the paintings, I can promise you we'll pay a twenty-thousand-dollar bounty."

"That's all? I heard you paid off fourteen million. I expected the reward to be ten percent of the policy amount."

"Well, that's the normal arrangement for the recovery of stolen property, but we're only talking about information that will put us on the trail to the paintings."

"If I take this case on, I'll find the paintings, Mr. Kovacs. I'll lead you right to them and even put them into your hands."

Kovacs looked at me intently, seeing a look of complete confidence in my eyes and on my face. "Very well, Mr. James, find the paintings and my company will pay you ten percent of the policy amount for their recovery."

"It's a deal, Mr. Kovacs. The paintings are as good as recovered."

Kovacs nodded in a patronizing manner. "Uh, where did you say you worked, Mr. James?"

"I've been recovering people for Ed Harris of Harris Bail Bonds and Marsh Adams of Triple A Bail Bonds."

"Here in New York?"

"Yes. Both are downtown if you care to check up on me."

"And how long have you been doing this?"

"Not very long, but both men will tell you I'm good. In fact, I've never failed."

"We'll see, Mr. James. We'll see." Kovacs walked away, probably thinking that was the last he'd hear from or about me. Imagine a bounty hunter thinking he had the skills to solve a major art theft.

Kathy had been watching the conversation from the other side of the room. When I returned, she said, "What was that all about?"

"Just asking about a job."

"You want to sell insurance?"

"No, I want to find the missing paintings from the Philadelphia heist."

"You what?"

"I'm going to find the missing paintings."

"Colton, don't be silly. By the way, how come you never told me you were a bounty hunter?"

"Because of the look on your face when you learned."

"What look?"

"Like I'd just strangled a box of new-born kittens as you looked on."

Kathy stared at me for a few seconds and then said calmly, "That's only because you caught me so off guard. I knew you as a computer expert who had turned to writing. I never would have expected you to take up bounty hunting."

"I prefer skip tracer. I did it because even aspiring authors have to eat and pay the rent. I can earn enough money doing skip tracing part time to support myself very well, and I can keep writing."

"What's 'very well'?"

"My last job took two days and paid me ten thousand dollars."

Kathy was clearly surprised. "Ten thousand dollars for two days' work?"

"Not a bad payday, eh?"

"But it's dangerous."

"Not the way I work. I just find the people and then let others take them into custody."

"But even the investigation can be dangerous."

"Not so much. A lot of it's done on the computer."

"You can find people using a computer? Even dangerous people?"

"Well, the information I gather gives me the leads."

"And now you think you can find the missing paintings using your computer? Google won't be any help with this."

"I expect all my— electronic resources— to be helpful."

Kathy shook her head. "You're an amazing man, Colton James. I'd just begun to think I had you figured out. Now you surprise me with this. I hope you have a lot of that ten thousand left. I don't think you'll be collecting the reward for the paintings. The FBI and trained art recovery experts who have spent their entire lives investigating crimes like that haven't been able to find them."

"Perhaps I have something they don't."

Kathy laughed. "Perhaps. Are you hungry?"

"I only had time to stop and grab a potato knish at a new deli over on West Houston Street earlier today. I'm famished."

"So am I. I was so nervous about this security check that I couldn't eat. But now I feel wonderful."

After saying goodnight to everyone, Kathy and I left by the side entrance and walked a couple of blocks to a restaurant that served until 3 a.m. on weekends.

Chapter Six

I didn't rise until noon on Sunday. After dinner with Kathy on Friday evening, I took her home to her apartment on the Upper East Side. She invited me in for coffee and one thing led to another. Her earlier prayer, and mine, that everything would go well was answered because I wound up spending the night. Rising late on Saturday, we took a long walk in Central Park and then enjoyed dinner before returning to her apartment. She was expecting several of her girlfriends to stop by for a visit on Sunday, so we said our goodbyes before things got passionate again. I was delighted to have been proven right. Kathy was just as beautiful without her makeup. In fact, I think I preferred her that way, and I hoped I could awaken to the wonderful sight of her sleeping alongside me again very soon.

After munching on a sort of breakfast and lunch combination made from fresh bagels, pastrami, and dark mustard, I took out my gizmo and set it up to observe the theft in Philadelphia. I watched as the paintings were cut from their frames and rolled up to be placed into special airtight tubes. People don't cram million-dollar paintings into knapsacks unless they're some kind of idiot, and these thieves certainly weren't idiots.

I made complete notes as the robbery progressed and carefully studied the faces of each of the thieves when they had removed their masks in the getaway vehicle. After watching the robbery, which lasted less than half an hour from start to finish, I marked each of the paintings, one at a time, and changed the time-line to the present. The gizmo took me to the same address for each of the five masterpieces.

"That means the paintings are still together, which makes it easier."

I adjusted the gizmo and discovered that the paintings were secreted behind a false wall in a basement. The panel lights on a dehumidifier were just bright enough for me to determine that the unit shared the space with an electric heater and the paintings.

"At least they're trying to ensure the paintings don't get ruined," I said aloud. "Let's see whose house this is."

After a brief examination of the basement, I adjusted the gizmo to move upstairs. The house was furnished but didn't appear to be lived in. I tried to check the refrigerator for contents, but all I proved was that the light really did go out when the door was closed. I then checked the upstairs bedrooms and found them deserted as well. Where the closet doors were not fully closed, I ascertained they were empty.

Well, I knew where the paintings were and what the crooks looked like, but I couldn't go to the insurance company with this. I needed facts and names or they wouldn't take me seriously. I'd also have to visit the crime scene to make it look like I'd really tracked down the thieves. The payday on this one would ensure I could work on selling my stories for years without worrying about money, but somehow I would have to make everyone believe I'd done it with real investigative work.

* * *

On Wednesday morning, I rented a car and drove to Philadelphia. It was my first trip to the City of Brotherly Love. Before visiting the crime scene, I stopped to enjoy a Philly Cheesesteak sandwich for lunch. It was infinitely better than the sandwich of the same name in New York. I guessed it was like Buffalo wings. The best wings I'd ever eaten were from Buffalo, New York, where the finger-friendly fast food had originated.

I spent the rest of the afternoon at the museum. I visited every area open to visitors, and I so conspicuously avoided looking at the art while examining every corner of every room that a security guard finally approached me.

"Excuse me, sir, may I help you?"

In my best imitation of Colombo, the famous television detective, I said, "No, no, I don't think so. Thanks anyway."

"Have you lost something?"

"No, this is my first time here."

"Would you accompany me to the security office, sir?"

"What for?"

"My supervisor, Captain DeRosa, would like to speak with you."

"Oh, okay."

I walked with the security guard to the office, which gave me a chance to see the security area in person. I had already visited every part of the museum by using the gizmo, but this trip was for me to be seen rather than for me to see.

"Come in, Mr… ?" the supervising guard said as I entered the office.

DeRosa looked like a stereotypical infantry commander who would be more at home on a battlefield than as top cop in a museum position where over-the-hill guards who had retired from the police force or young rejects who hadn't been able to get onto the force in the first place would normally be found. He was almost as tall as myself but older by at least fifteen years and, I'm ashamed to admit, appeared to be in better physical condition.

"James. Colton James."

"Mr. James, may I ask what you're doing here? You've been here for hours and haven't looked at a single exhibit."

"That's right. I'm not interested in your current exhibits."

DeRosa stood up a little straighter. "What are you interested in?"

"The Von Waggermann paintings that were stolen from this museum. I discussed the case with William Kovacs on Friday evening and told him I'd look into it."

"You work for Kovacs?"

"No. I'm an independent recovery expert. I was at the museum in New York City during the final security examination for the new Von Waggermann exhibit that opens this coming Friday. We discussed the robbery there after the museum passed the security check."

"You were there during the examination? Then you must have met Bill, the top security expert for the insurance company."

"Bill?" I said in an absent-minded sort of way. I shook my head slightly and said, "No, I didn't meet any Bill. Phil was there though. I thought he was their top man."

"You're right. It is Phil. I confused the names."

Baloney, I thought. You were trying to trip me up to find out if I'm legit. "Easy mistake. They sound similar."

"Do you have any leads? We'd love to recover the paintings. It's a black mark on our history that we'd do almost anything to erase."

"Nothing yet, but I only started working the case Monday. Were you on duty the night the theft occurred?"

"No, I left at seven-thirty. We believe the theft occurred around three a.m."

"Really? How did you arrive at that?"

"One of the guards swears that he spent several minutes staring at one of the missing paintings in rapt appreciation during his rounds at two a.m., and the theft was discovered at four oh three. So we know the theft occurred between those hours. There are several unexplained— wispy— shadows visible on the videotapes between those hours. We're assuming they were made by the thieves during commission of the crime."

"I see. As I understood from Mr. Kovacs, there weren't any fingerprints or traceable clues found?"

"That's right. These guys were pros."

"Is that right? You know they were guys?"

"Er, no. I meant it in the generic sense."

"Ah, then you know they were pros?"

"Well, we know they did a professional job, and the paintings haven't surfaced. That normally means they had a buyer already lined up or knew where to sell them. They're probably in a private collection where some billionaire can sit and stare at them all day without sharing them with anybody else."

"I see. Yes, that's a possibility. I understand you've never discovered how the thieves got in or out."

"That's correct. It's another reason we believe they were pros. Only pros could have gotten in and out without leaving any sign of forced entry. They picked locks we thought were 'unpickable' and didn't leave so much as scratch marks around the locks."

"How do you figure they got past the alarms?"

"We haven't figured that one out either. We had a special alarm system installed as added protection for the exhibit. The guards had to deactivate the alarm just to enter that part of the museum when doing their rounds. The police believed it was an inside job, but we were able to use the videotapes to account for the movement of the guards throughout the whole night, and each of them passed a polygraph test with flying colors. There wasn't even a suggestion that one of them might be lying about having knowledge of the theft. The security company that installed the special alarm could have no knowledge of the deactivation code because it was changed after the installation and then again weekly."

"Interesting. And there wasn't anyone else working in the museum that night?"

"The cleaning people left at midnight. After that it was just the three guards until the police arrived in response to the alarm."

"And the alarm was intentionally set off by your people?"

"Yes, as soon as the theft was discovered. It's standard operating procedure. The alarm turns on both the interior lights throughout the building and the outside lighting so as to make it easier to spot intruders, but the thieves were already gone."

"It's quite a mystery."

"It sure is. Any ideas?"

"More questions than ideas, at least for now."

"Anything else I can answer?"

"No, there are some things I have to look into. You've been very helpful. Thank you, Mr…?"

"Captain DeRosa."

"Thank you, Captain DeRosa. I'll let you know when I find the paintings."

"You sound pretty sure of yourself, Mr. James."

"I've never failed yet, Captain. Before I leave, could you give me the home addresses of the three guards who were on duty that night?"

"We're satisfied they had nothing to do with the robbery."

"At this time, I lean that way also."

"I can arrange for you to interview them right here at the museum. I'd rather not upset their families further. They've been through enough."

"I understand, but I'd like to speak with them in more comfortable surroundings. The atmosphere during the questioning can be vital. There might be something they know that they don't know they know. Do you know what I mean? Sometimes, certain facts come to light in response to the right question."

"I think so. You mean something almost subconscious."

"Exactly. It won't be a grilling, just a friendly conversation such as the one we've just had. I promise to be most discreet."

"Very well. I'll arrange for the interviews."

"Thank you, Captain."

* * *

I found a decent motel and moved into the room, then drove around until I found a busy restaurant. Busy restaurants that were not located just off the interstates, on busy highways, or hosting a special event usually had decent food. It wasn't an infallible method for finding good restaurants, but I wasn't disappointed.

After returning to my room, I used the gizmo to visit the homes of each of the guards. They had already left for work, but their families were there. Lastly, I checked the phone book for the address of City Hall and then went to bed.

* * *

Philadelphia's City Hall, located at Broad and Market Streets, is reputed to be the largest municipal building in the United States. Philadelphia claims that it's even larger than the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC. Perhaps when they began construction in 1871, Philadelphians were hoping to once again host the country's government. I arrived early and spent part of the morning searching for information in the Records Department. Occasionally I purchased some photocopies.

At lunch time I strolled over to Philly's China town. I looked for a restaurant that seemed busy, then waited for a table. I couldn't complain about slow service when I'd intentionally sought out the busiest restaurant, but the food was usually worth the wait, which turned out to be true.

Following lunch I walked to the Department of Licenses and Inspections on JFK Boulevard, just across the street from City Hall, and spent more time researching and then buying photocopies.

When I returned to my motel room after dinner, I placed the gizmo on the wall and again spent hours working the case, making detailed notes about the robbery in my laptop.

The next day was dedicated to conducting the interviews Captain DeRosa had arranged. The guards' kids were in school, but their wives were there and listened to everything that was said without interrupting. I remained true to my word and was as discreet as I could be.

My final morning in Philadelphia was spent watching events on the gizmo once again, a task I could have performed in New York, but I wanted to prolong my presence in Philadelphia. Before leaving the city, I visited the museum again, mainly to put in an appearance but also to reinforce the basis of my investigation. I asked to see Captain DeRosa and was escorted to the security office.

"Hello, Mr. James," the security guard captain said as I entered the office.

"Hello, Captain."

"My people tell me you were most cordial during the interviews. They say they never felt intimidated or threatened in the slightest. Thank you. Do you have good news for us?"

"Not yet, but I do have one or two more questions if you don't mind?"

"Fire away."

"As I understand it, the pictures were cut from their frames after first being taken down from the wall?"

"Yes, that was the assessment."

"But aren't they attached with some kind of locking mechanism? Or were the locks broken?"

"In this case, there were no special locks. We installed the same hanging system the Von Waggermanns use so there would be no need to make changes to the frames. But it's a standard system, and anyone can get a removal key. The main purpose is to make sure tourists can't get the pictures down quickly or easily, or knock them down accidentally. The alarms and cameras are the main preventative measures against theft."

"How is the schedule for making rounds established?"

"Here's a copy of our most recently replaced schedule," Captain DeRosa said as he dug into a file drawer and handed me a sheet of paper. "As you can see, the times between rounds and the patrol routes vary so no one can predict when a guard will be in any one area."

"Thank you, Captain. That's all I need for now."

"You'd tell me, wouldn't you?"

"What do you mean?"

"If you had something."

"Right now I'm just reconstructing the crime in my mind. Every piece has to fit exactly, like a big jigsaw puzzle. I'm searching for anomalies. It might have been easier if I'd been here right after the robbery, but I can do it this way. It's just a little slower sometimes because people's memories dim."

"Still think you'll recover the paintings?"

"I'm more confident than ever."

* * *

I spent Saturday morning writing up my report to the insurance company. I was finished by noon and happily spent the rest of the afternoon working on my latest novel. I called Kathy just after dinnertime.

"Hi, Kathy. How did the grand opening go?"

"Wonderful. I thought you might drop by."

"I couldn't. I was in Philadelphia."

"Philadelphia? Working on the art theft?"


"Did you make any progress?"

"I learned quite a few things. I'm going to go see Kovacs this coming week."

"I'm glad you got back safely. Some thieves may specialize in stealing artwork, but it doesn't mean they're nice people."

"Can't be any worse than the murderers and drug dealers I've looked for while skip tracing."

"I still can't believe you do that."

"It's true."

"I know. I meant that it just seems so out of character. You're such a sensitive and caring person. I guess I think of bounty hunters as knuckle-dragging brutes."

"That's just an unfair stereotype. Are you busy tomorrow?"


"Good. Want to spend the day with me?"

"I'd love to. What shall we do?"

"I thought we'd start off with a morning walk in the park and then take in a matinee."

"Okay. What time?"

"I'll stop by your place at ten."

"It's a date."

* * *

On Monday morning, I called William Kovacs' office. I was surprised to get put through immediately.

"Good morning, Mr. James. How was your trip to Philadelphia?"

I immediately realized that Captain DeRosa must have called Kovacs to check my credentials. "Good morning, Mr. Kovacs. It was very— informative. Captain DeRosa was most cooperative."

"Good. What can I do for you today?"

"I was wondering if you had some time today. I'd like to drop down and see you."

"It's a bad day, James. I'm free for periods this morning, but I'm going to be tied up in meetings all afternoon. I can't possibly cancel any of them."

"I could make it there this morning if you can spare me just ten minutes."

"Well— okay. But not a second more. Not today."

"Fine, I'll be there within the hour."

I hurried out of the house and flagged a cab at the corner. In twenty minutes from the time I had hung up the phone I was entering Kovacs' outer office. His secretary asked me to have a chair and I waited for twenty-five minutes while several people came and left Kovacs' office. It wasn't so bad though. I got to enjoy the spectacular curves of a twenty-something blonde who was the antithesis of the dumb blonde stereotype. Her desk was one of those minimalist modern pieces of furniture that left most of her body visible. I almost felt like I was cheating on Kathy, but we didn't have an established relationship, and I was only looking at a fully clothed body. I fully expect that I will continue to look at, and appreciate, beautiful women until the day my body reaches room temperature. At least I hope so. I don't consider myself to be sexist. I just have a healthy attraction to the opposite sex. I was almost sorry when I was finally told that Kovacs could see me.

"You've got ten minutes, James," Kovacs said as I walked to his desk. "It's all I can spare today. So tell me what's on your mind. Did you learn something in Philadelphia?"

I knew he was expecting a non-committal response, so I said, "Something? Why— I learned everything, Mr. Kovacs."

The smile slowly faded from his face as he tried to determine if I was joking. "Are you saying you located the paintings?"

It was my turn to smile now. "I learned the method, the identity of the thieves, and the present locations of both the paintings and the thieves."

"That's not possible. You've only been working on it for a week."

"How long is it supposed to take?" I said with a perfectly straight face. "I could come back in a few months."

"If this is a joke, James, it's not funny."

"No joke. I dropped by today to see what a check for one point four mil payable to me looks like."

Kovacs stared at me in silence for several seconds before asking "Who did it?"

"First things first, Mr. Kovacs. I'd like a letter from you stating that when the paintings are recovered, I receive the promised amount. You pick up the artwork; I pick up the check. Next day. Not thirty, sixty, ninety days, or a year later."

"We're a major company, Mr. James. We have the money. You don't need a letter."

"I know the company has the money, Mr. Kovacs, or I wouldn't have taken this case. I just want to make sure that I get it. My first skip case taught me a valuable lesson. I offered a lowball price of only a thousand dollars just to get my foot in the door. After delivering the felon and saving the bail-bondsman a hundred thousand, he tried to give me only five hundred. He said that I had misunderstood our verbal arrangement. I realized I didn't have a legal leg to stand on without witnesses to the promised amount or a written contract. We're talking about a sum of money considerably larger than that one, and I don't have a reputation for art recovery. After we've done business a couple of times, I'll start to trust your word, if it's good."

Kovacs sat down and looked up at me. He was probably a little insulted that I didn't just take his word, but then he was a security specialist and knew that trust is something that has to be earned. Realizing that he wasn't going to get the information without the letter, he called in his secretary to take some dictation.

In ten minutes, I was holding what I wanted in the language that I wanted. I was promised to receive a check for one point four million dollars within twenty-four hours of the paintings being recovered and authenticated as genuine if my information led directly to their immediate recovery. After tucking the letter into the inside pocket of my coat, I withdrew the large envelope containing the report I had prepared and handed it over. Kovacs tore it open and read the report quickly, then started over again and read it slowly.

"You're sure of these facts?" he asked after the second read.

"Almost one hundred percent. Some of the scenario is conjecture based on deductive reasoning, but I guarantee the location of the artwork, which is what you're most interested in. It's up to the cops to build the law's case on the theft. There were no witnesses, so you may only be able to get one of them for possession of stolen goods, unless one or more crack and confess to the robbery."

"How can you guarantee the location of the artwork?"

"I can't tell you that. Or rather, I won't tell you that. But the paintings are where I say they are." I had prepared myself for that question. I wanted my response to give the impression that I had committed criminal trespass, so I couldn't admit to having seen the paintings.

Kovacs stared at me for a few seconds, then picked up his phone. "Cindy, cancel all my appointments for today and tomorrow. Then arrange for a car to take me to the copter pad and a copter to take me to the airport. Then book me on the next shuttle flight to Philadelphia. Wait— book two tickets to Philadelphia. Mr. Colton James will be traveling with me." Kovacs hung up the phone. "I thought you'd like to be there when we recover the paintings."

"I don't have a change of clothes with me."

"We'll be back tonight if the paintings aren't there. If they are, you can afford to buy an Armani suit every day and discard the used one, but we may be back anyway. I wouldn't be running off like this, but I contacted Harris and Adams when I got the call from Philadelphia. They told me you were some kind of combination Sherlock Holmes and Houdini when it came to finding skips. We'll find out if your talent extends to artwork."

Chapter Seven

Four hours later, we were at Philadelphia Police Headquarters on Race Street, standing in the office of Detective Captain Stinburn. Kovacs had called Captain DeRosa and asked him to meet us there, not giving any other information.

Where DeRosa looked like an infantry commander, Stinburn looked like a tired cop just waiting for retirement. He was pleasant enough though.

"Mr. Kovacs," Stinburn said, "you expect me to get a search warrant for this house based on Mr. James' word alone that the paintings are there?"

"Mr. James has a perfect record of delivering what he goes after, Captain. His description of how the crime was perpetrated and by whom is entirely logical and well within the realm of possibility. I think it should be investigated. My only interest is the recovery of the artwork. The arrests are up to you."

"What do you think of this, Captain DeRosa?" Captain Stinburn asked.

"I'm opposed. I don't believe these people could possibly be involved. I know each of them personally. They don't have it in them to pull off something like this."

"Well— it does manage to fit in with this department's belief that it was an inside job. Okay, I'll call a judge and try to get the search warrant. Wait for me outside, please."

Kovacs, DeRosa, and I left the office to give the police captain privacy for his call. There was a coffee machine down the hallway and we each drank a cup of some truly awful coffee as we waited. Where DeRosa had been friendly towards me before, there was a very definite atmosphere of frost between us now. I understood. His people were like family to him, and he wasn't yet willing to believe they could have committed this crime.

It took ten minutes for the captain to arrange for the warrant and set up the operation. We were then escorted to several police cars that were waiting to take us to the house where the paintings were secreted.

After knocking on the door failed to produce results at the house, a powerfully built police officer put his shoulder against the door and pushed. The sound of cracking wood was accompanied by inward movement, and it only took a few seconds to locate the cellar stairway. A crowbar opened the locked door by destroying the frame around the lock with one good push, and we descended into a totally empty basement.

"Well, Mr. James," Captain Stinburn asked, "Where's this secret room?"

Pointing to the wall on the north side of the house, I said simply, "There."

It took several minutes to find the latch that allowed the wall section to swing out.

"Son of a bitch," DeRosa exclaimed, causing Kovacs to push his way to the forefront and grab the five sealed containers discovered behind the wall.

When Kovacs eagerly opened the first of the containers there was a slight whooshing noise, indicating the containers were vacuum-sealed. Kovacs withdrew the first painting with great care and unrolled it part way.

"It's the Van Gogh," Kovacs said. "We'll have to have them examined and authenticated, of course, but I believe these are the stolen paintings, Captain Stinburn."

Kovacs used even more care in replacing the rolled painting into the container as the police captain used his radio and issued orders to move in. I assumed that cars had been waiting for dispatch orders to pick up the thieves if the paintings had been found.

* * *

Back at the police station, the wives of the three museum guards were put into a holding cage. One was crying uncontrollably as the others steadfastly stared at the floor, but I had already verified their identities from using the gizmo.

As we stood alone in the corridor outside Captain Stinburn's office, DeRosa asked, "Mr. James, what put you on the track?"

I had prepared myself for that question as well. "The picture frames were removed from the wall. Time is critical in an operation like that one. Professional thieves would have simply cut the pictures from the frames using razor knives on telescoping wands. Taking them down first just didn't make sense. I decided that the main reason had to be because the thieves didn't have access to the proper equipment. That ruled out professionals. Having telescoping wand knives custom made without criminal contacts could have pointed a finger at one of the women. They could have tried to make something themselves from materials available through an office supply store, and if they had succeeded, I might have continued to assume it was the work of pros. But they either didn't try or didn't succeed. Tall males might possibly have been able to cut two of the pictures out with regular box cutters, so if the shorter frames had been left on the wall, I would not have tumbled to the thieves so quickly. Based on the height you mounted the paintings in the museum, I believed the thieves had to either be female or very short men.

"Then there was the issue of entry and exit. I believe your guards are totally innocent of the theft. I would guess they never knew, giving them the ability to pass polygraph tests 'with flying colors.' But their families have access to their keys while they're sleeping after arriving home at eight in the morning. It would be a simple matter to run out and have duplicate keys made and return the original before the guard woke up."

"But how could they have gotten the alarm codes?"

"I was in the computer field for many years. Almost everybody writes down their passwords someplace in case they forget them. I recall one instance where a person had written hers on the underside of her keyboard. At least one of your guards had to have written down his codes in case he forgot them. He probably kept them in his wallet instead of leaving them at work."

"How did they get past the cameras?"

"While I was at your museum last week, I was seen checking out the corners of the rooms. One of your guards asked me if I had lost something. What I'd been doing was checking out camera viewing angles. It's possible to get to the exhibit area by hugging the walls and waiting until the camera pans away. I would double the number of cameras and stop the ones that pan automatically."

"So they sneaked in using copies of our keys, hugged the wall to avoid the cameras, deactivated the alarms using the stolen codes, took down the paintings and cut them out of the frames, then retraced their steps to get out. But there was still the chance of getting spotted by one of their husbands."

"They knew the schedule for rounds, so the risk was minimal. You use a varying time schedule, but it's the same schedule every night for one full week. I suspect one of the wives managed to get that information from her husband. They had a lot of time to plan this and get it right. It was the score of a lifetime. I suspect the paintings would not have been sold until their retirement years. They were almost good enough to be considered professionals."

"How did you figure out where the paintings were hidden?"

"Once I thought I knew who had committed the crime, I only had to figure out where they felt would be a good hiding place. They couldn't keep them in their homes because they knew their husbands would be suspects and the police might find the artwork in a search, yet they needed a secure place where they could control the temperature and humidity. That left out most rental storage units since power isn't generally available. I did a property ownership search and discovered that the deceased aunt of one of the women had left her house to her niece, but a new deed had never been recorded, so it's still listed in the aunt's name on the property rolls. If an investigator had searched the rolls using the women's married names and maiden names, it wouldn't have flagged.

"I found that an electrical inspection had been made following new work in the basement a few years ago. The report mentioned work behind a false wall, erected ostensibly to hide plumbing lines.

"When I discovered the house was vacant, I contacted the rental agent named on the sign in the front window and told her I was interested in renting the house. During a tour of the house, she informed me that tenants would not be given access to the basement. That was logical because they couldn't risk having someone find the hidden artwork."

"Amazing. It all seems so simple and logical now that you explain it. They came close to getting away with it."

"They might have been caught when they tried to fence the paintings. There might even have been a falling out before then. What if one decided that she didn't want to wait for her husband to retire? There are a lot of ifs."

"I can't believe you solved it in just a week."

"Things just fell into place. I guess I was lucky."

"No, you're good. If fact, I'd have to rank you up there with the best. I'm amazed I've never heard of you before."

Just then Kovacs came out of the Police Captain's office. "Mr. James, it's time to go to the press conference."

"Press conference? I don't do press conferences."

"You have to. You solved this all by yourself. The press is going to want to see you."

"I don't want anything except the recovery fee. If I go to a press conference, they'll take my picture, and if people start to recognize my face, my effectiveness will be compromised. I can always use a phony name during my investigations, but I don't want to have to wear disguises."

"Okay, I see your point. No pictures. Wait here, we'll be back in less than an hour and then we can head for New York."

An hour later, we were on our way to the airport behind a four- motorcycle escort the police had provided for the protection of the artwork. Captain Stinburn had thanked me for the recovery and told me that his door was always open if I came back to Philadelphia. I was surprised since I was expecting the police captain to be upset that I had solved a crime where his detectives hadn't been able to make a single inroad.

Kovacs rented a private jet for the trip to Newark Airport to maintain security. Although the paintings were technically evidence, it was important that they be turned over to restoration experts before any further damage could be incurred and for authentication, so they were released to the insurance company.

As we waited for the plane to take off, I said, "So now you'll be vindicated with the Von Waggermanns. There's no way they can blame your security measures when it was an inside job, and you've recovered the paintings for them. Will you have trouble getting your money back?"

"That won't be a problem at all. Artwork normally appreciates in value each year, and these pieces were actually a bit underinsured at the time of the robbery. Since then, prices have risen substantially. If they don't want the art back, we'll sell it and recover enough to pay the claim and your fee, but I'm sure they'll want it. Money isn't a problem for them, and they love their collection.

"And yes, this recovery vindicates my approval of the alarm system at the museum. There's no way to protect against an inside job where all the alarms can be bypassed by people with keys and codes. Thanks again. You can pick up your check tomorrow once the artwork has been authenticated."

I chuckled. "I hope they stole originals because those are the paintings that were stolen."

"The paintings were authenticated when they were brought to the museum. We have the original frames in New York and we'll be able to match up the cut canvas if there's a question. Your mind works in a most peculiar way, if you don't mind my saying so."

I grinned. "I guess I've just become a lot more cynical during the past few years."

"Yes, working in criminal justice circles does that to you."

The plane was met in Newark by an armored truck. Kovacs wasn't taking any chances. I declined a ride in the back of the armored truck and grabbed a cab instead. It was amusing to think that a few weeks ago I would never have declined a free ride, no matter how uncomfortable. But now I was thinking of dinners out, theater tickets, and new cars. I would have to be careful not to fall into the trap of overspending.

The recovery of the paintings made the nightly news on all the network and cable channels. Kovacs had used my full name twice during the press conference, crediting me solely with the recovery. At least my picture didn't appear on the news and my address wasn't given out.

* * *

I stopped in to pick up my recovery fee the next day. I was anxious to hold it. How many people get to hold one point four million dollars of their own money in their hands?

The secretary smiled widely as I gave my name and she immediately buzzed Kovacs. "You may go right in, Mr. James," she said.

Kovacs was standing behind his desk, grinning from ear to ear also. "Come in, Colt. The paintings have been authenticated. I've already been in contact with the Von Waggermanns and they couldn't be happier. I hope you don't mind, but I gave them your home address. I think they want to send you a case of wine or something. They mentioned a small gratuity."

"I don't mind that, but I'd prefer you don't give it to anyone from the press."

"I understand completely. Normally, I wouldn't give it out to anyone at all, but this was a very special case. You should set up a way for people to contact you now though. I expect you may get some additional recovery business from all this."

"I'm retiring for a couple of years. I have enough money now to work on my novels full time for a while."

"You still want to be an author? With your talent for recovering stolen artwork? Even the best authors don't earn almost a million and half dollars for one week of work."

"This was a fluke. I ran into you by accident and learned about the case, so I inquired if there was a reward. The pay is better than skip tracing, but how many cases like this can there be?"

"Far more than you'd suspect unless you travel in the right circles. A lot of thefts don't make big headlines in the national news, but they occur on a regular basis. Some are even covered up by big corporations who don't want adverse publicity. I've already had two inquires about your services from other insurance companies. Here are the messages if you care to return their calls." Kovacs handed me the message slips. "And here's your check. I've rarely enjoyed handing out the company's money as much as I do this time."

I took the check and looked at the all the zeros following the one and the four. "Thank you, Mr. Kovacs. It's been a real pleasure doing business with you. If I can ever be of service again, give me a call."

"Even though you're retiring?"

"I might be persuaded to come out of retirement if the case is— interesting enough." I waved the check as I spoke the last two words.

"I'm glad to hear that. I'll give you a call if anything interesting comes up."

"Goodbye, Mr. Kovacs."

"Until the next time, Colt. And call me Bill, please."

"Until then, Bill."

* * *

My first stop was my bank. I waited patiently until the new accounts person was free, and then I took a seat at her desk.

"Hi, I'm Colton James. I already have an account here, but I'd like to open two more accounts."

"Of course, sir," the young woman said. "What type of accounts do you wish?"

"Well, I need an account to hold money for income taxes. It should be some sort of an interest-bearing savings account, but I'll need to withdraw the funds when my taxes are due. I also want an interest-bearing savings account to hold the remainder of my funds."

"How much money are we talking about? Ten thousand or more?"

"A bit more," I said as I handed her the check. Her eyes grew a little wider and she looked up at me.

"Oh, you're that Colton James," she said with a look of admiration. "I heard about you on the news last night. I think it's wonderful that you were able to recover those paintings. I didn't know we had a world famous detective among our local depositors."

"I'm hardly world famous."

"If not yet, you will be. You're still young. You have lots of time to enhance your career reputation." The young woman entered some information into her computer. "I see that you already have a substantial balance in your checking account. Did you wish to add more from this check?"

"No, thank you."

"How did you wish to split the money between the two new accounts?"

"I think the government takes about half these days, so half and half."

"Okay. Please sign these signature cards and endorse the check."

The young woman then explained the various accounts that were available. I made my decision and she set up the two accounts as I waited.

* * *

I was sitting in Murphy's, nursing a beer when Billy Boyles came in.

"Hey bro, congratulations," he said as he sat on the chair opposite mine at the table. "I hear you found another new way to pick up a little extra spending money. This is so— intense. I knew you'd become famous someday, but I thought it would be for your writing. Hey, how much did you get for finding those paintings?"

"Well, I put half of it into a separate account for the taxes, but I'll probably get to keep about seven hundred."

"Seven hundred? Is that all? I thought those pictures were worth millions?"

"Seven hundred grand, not seven hundred dollars."

"SEVEN HUNDRED GRAND!" Billy shouted as he jumped up. Every conversation in the bar momentarily ceased as all heads turned to look at him.

"Quiet down, Billy," I whispered. "I don't want the entire Lower West Side to know I have money now. It won't be safe to walk the streets."

"Oh, sorry, bro," Billy said quietly as he sat back down. "It's just that it's so much money." A strange expression came over his face. "I guess you'll be moving away now."

"I've been considering it. I may have to do that just to get away from the press. I don't want my picture in the paper. I drove by my house and saw several reporters hanging around, so for now I've taken a room at a hotel. Hopefully it'll be old news in a couple of days."

"Where would you move to?"

"I've thought about moving over to the East Side."

Billy smiled. "Near Kathy's place?"

"That's a definite possibility," I said, smiling.

* * *

I treated Billy to a steak dinner as a sort of celebration, then returned to my hotel room a few hours later. It was still early, so I called Kathy.

"Well, the conquering hero returns," she said. "Congratulations, you're the talk of the art world right now."

"I got lucky."

"Maybe, but that's not the general consensus. I spoke to the Von Waggermanns today. They're beside themselves with joy. I couldn't help but put in a little plug for our museum. I told them you were visiting me at the museum during the security examination and that was how you got involved in the case. I said that if they hadn't agreed to let us exhibit part of their collection, the other five paintings wouldn't have been recovered. I wanted to make them feel better about allowing part of their collection out again."

"I'm glad it worked out so well. How about dinner and a show on Saturday— to celebrate?"

"Great. What show?"

"You name it. I'll get the tickets."

"I'd love to see the show at the Orpheum."

"You've got it. I'll pick up the tickets tomorrow."

We talked for a while and even made plans to have lunch on Thursday. After hanging up, I turned on the television to catch the evening news and was just in time to see my own face staring back at me. The network had somehow gotten hold of the interview I had given outside my house following the explosion of the apartment building. The interview was being played as part of the news story that the paintings had been authenticated and were now awaiting restoration work before being placed back into their original frames and returned to the family. I flipped through the channels and saw that every network had apparently gotten the interview footage from the cable news station that had shot it.

"So much for anonymity," I said, sighing.

Chapter Eight

Since my image was plastered all over the news anyway, I moved back home the next morning. A plethora of reporters and photographers were camped outside my house, but I pushed my way through the forest of microphones held towards my face without stopping to answer questions.

My answering machine was full, and after stopping to put my things down, I started the messages playing. A few were from friends congratulating me, but most were from people who wanted to hire me to find things— everything from lost relatives to dogs and cats. A few of the calls were from women who wanted to meet me and had left their numbers so I could call. One call was from a gay man wondering if I'd be interested in meeting him for a drink.

As I listened to the machine, the phone continued to ring with new calls. I tried to ignore it and finally felt tempted to pull the plug from the wall socket, but instead I turned on my computer and logged on to the internet. The connection would result in callers getting a busy signal.

At least my email file was pretty clean, except for the usual spam and virus emails that clog every active surfer's email box. I cleared them off without opening any and sat down to respond to the legitimate mail and fan letters that were left.

It was still too early for lunch when I finished, so I called the two insurance companies listed on the message forms Bill Kovacs had given me. Mr. Stillworth was out, but when I called the other, I was immediately put through to Mr. Fodor.

"Mr. James, thanks for returning my call. I'd like to know if you're available to take on a special case?"

"I've decided to retire for awhile, Mr. Fodor. I want to concentrate on my writing. I just wanted to let you know and thank you for your interest."

"Mr. James, please hear me out. This is very important. Our own people have given up and I need someone who can look at it from a fresh perspective. It could be very lucrative for you."

I thought for a few seconds. It couldn't hurt to hear him out. "Very well, Mr. Fodor. What is it that you've lost?"

"I can't speak about it on the phone. Can we meet for lunch at my club?"

Club? I thought. Well, why not? "Okay, Mr. Fodor. Where and when?"

I copied down the information and agreed to be there at noon. After completing the call, I called the phone company and arranged for a new number— unlisted of course.

* * *

Fodor exuded financial success. I estimated he was in his mid fifties, tan and fit, impeccably dressed in a suit that must have cost five thousand dollars, and he had a million-dollar smile. My suit, on the other hand, was right off the rack from a mid-town discount men's warehouse. It was clean and pressed, but I felt like the poor relation.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Fodor. I'm Colton James," I said as I was escorted to his table.

"Good afternoon, Mr. James," Fodor said, rising and extending his hand. "I recognize you from the news broadcasts last night. Thank you for consenting to meet with me. Shall we order first, and then we can discuss my problem? I recommend the lobster. Alex, the head chef, is particularly adept at preparing seafood."

After the dinner order was taken and drinks were delivered, Fodor lowered his voice and said, "Mr. James, you're familiar, of course, with the theft from the Merchendes Collection?"

"No, I can't say I am."

Fodor looked astonished. "You're not?"

"No, sorry."

"Well, never mind. That theft is the reason I wanted to meet with you. Nine pieces were stolen from their collection. We've done our best to keep the news people from sensationalizing the theft and hoped the thieves would contact us looking to exchange the art for the reward. It's been eleven months now and we haven't heard a word. Our own investigators don't have a single lead. We need outside help and I'm turning to you. As soon as I heard you had recovered artwork that was stolen over two years ago, I knew you were our man."

"Where did the theft occur?"

"At the family home in Boston. The thieves invaded the home, manhandled the staff, and took the paintings while the family was at a benefit dinner. They arrived home to find the front door wide open and the staff locked in the walk-in cooler. They were lucky no one was seriously injured."

"What's the valued amount of the missing pieces?"

"The policy on the missing pieces was eleven million."

"How many assailants?"

"We know of four, armed with small automatic weapons, although they never fired them."

"So you're dealing with a group of particularly nasty people rather than thieves who rely on finesse to acquire their loot."

"I'm afraid so."

"Well— as I tried to tell you, I've decided to retire for a while to concentrate on my writing. I wish to enjoy some of my recovery fees, and diving into a nest of gun-wielding thugs doesn't fit into my plans right now."

"I've heard you were formerly a skip tracer, so danger can't be your only objection to taking this case."

"No, but it figures into it— prominently."

"I've been authorized to raise the normal recovery percentage from ten percent to fifteen. That's one million, six hundred fifty thousand dollars."

I hesitated for a few seconds as I thought about the money. "No, sorry. I won't say I'm not tempted, but I have to pass."

"Okay, my final offer. Two million dollars recovery fee, if you get all the pieces back within thirty days. That's when we have to pay out the policy amount."

"Two million?"

Fodor nodded.

"Do you require that the crooks be convicted?"

"We don't even care if they're arrested, although that would be a wonderful bonus. We're only interested in getting the artwork back, intact, before we have to pay out the claim."

"I can't guarantee it hasn't been damaged already. Did they cut them out of the frames?"

"No, they took the entire pieces, frames and all."

"Then the frames are probably damaged to some degree."

"They can be easily repaired or replaced. We're more concerned with the canvases."

I took a deep breath and then released it slowly. "Very well, Mr. Fodor. I'll look into it. I'll need to see everything you have in your files, and I'll need to visit the family home where the robbery occurred."

Mr. Fodor extended his hand and I shook it.

"I'll also need a letter outlining our agreement. Payment for the recovery is required within twenty-four hours of the artwork coming back into your possession and being authenticated."

"Agreed. Ah, here's our order. Perfect timing."

Fodor was right— the lobster was excellent.

* * *

A messenger delivered two boxes from Fodor the next day. They contained photocopies of the entire investigation file, a signed letter spelling out the agreement, and, because I had requested that I be permitted to visit the house and question the staff, Fodor included a letter of introduction to the family.

Rather than reading through the investigation file, I just picked out the date, time, and address of the robbery and used the gizmo to watch it as it progressed. I watched it several times, feeling more uncomfortable with each viewing. The brutality of the thieves was exhibited several times as servants were struck with fists and gun butts if they hesitated for a fraction of a second. I never felt the thieves had any qualms about maiming or killing the staff members. As I had hypothesized to Fodor, these were particularly nasty people. I discovered that there were actually five assailants. One, armed with an AR-15 rifle with a folding stock, remained outside with the van, listening to a police scanner and watching for any arriving visitors.

After viewing the crime, I reluctantly read through the entire file. The investigation was very complete, and the investigators had done their jobs well. This was certainly not an inside job. The thieves had all worn gloves and black knit caps that covered all but their eyes. The van, stolen earlier in the evening, was found abandoned the following morning. The thieves had torched it to further hide any incriminating evidence. The investigation was presently stalled, without any place to go.

Using the gizmo, I traced the robbers to the present and got a good look at all their faces. Then I traced the artwork and found that eight of the nine pieces were locked away at an indoor storage facility in Cambridge. The ninth piece was in a room built like a vault. There was a single reclining chair facing three pictures hanging on a wall. There was no one in the vault, but a small lamp over each of the picture frames showed the artwork very clearly.

I recorded the coordinates of the house and used my computer to translate that into an address. Then I jumped backward an hour at a time until I found a man sitting in the chair. Using the square that changed from black to blue, I tagged him. Returning to the night of the robbery, I tagged the man I had identified as the ringleader. Instantly, I was brought forward to a scene where the thief delivered the painting to the second man, who was waiting in a car. A large manila envelope, bulging with what I assumed was cash, was turned over to the thief and he left.

"There must have been an earlier meeting," I said aloud.

Setting the date back a year, I touched the blue and red squares again. The time advanced until the scene changed to another meeting between the men. They sat in the car and talked for about fifteen minutes before the older man handed over an envelope. I assumed it contained cash as a down payment. The date was over a month before the robbery. Touching the two dots again, I watched the delivery again. So they had only met two times, at least in connection with this theft, unless there had been a much earlier meeting to discuss the theft and decide upon a price and down payment. It appeared that the theft was prearranged just to get the one painting. The others were probably taken to lead suspicion away from the collector, who may have tried to acquire the painting in the past. Or they might have been taken as extra loot, even though they didn't have a buyer waiting.

Having sleuthed all of the parties involved in the theft, I set about trying to identify them. I wished again that the gizmo had audio capability.

In late afternoon, my doorbell rang. I was ready to blast the reporters for annoying me at home, but it turned out to be a delivery man from a car dealership.

"Good afternoon, Mr. James. We have your car all ready. The first year of insurance is paid, and it's been registered with the Department of Motor Vehicles."

"Wait a minute. I didn't order a car."

"Yes, sir. I understand that the arrangements were made by a Mr. Von Waggermann. The vehicle cost and all prep charges have been paid. Here are the keys and paperwork."

I accepted the package, then reached into my pocket for some cash. The deliveryman saw my movement and guessed the reason.

"I've already been compensated, sir. Mr. Von Waggermann was most generous. Your new car is parked out front. Just call the dealership if you have any problems or need to have it picked up for service."

"Thank you."

"My pleasure, sir. Have a great day."

As the deliveryman disappeared down the stairs, I looked at the package I had been handed. The car was a top of the line BMW, with all the options. Mr. Von Waggermann had indeed been exceedingly generous. A note included with the package read, 'I learned from the television reports that you recently lost your car. Please accept this one in grateful appreciation for your recovery of our family heirlooms. R.L. Von Waggermann.'

The reporters had finally left, so I pulled the door closed and walked down to look at my new car.

The silver-grey BMW looked distinctly out of place in this neighborhood, and I knew I would have to garage it or it would disappear within a week. The alarm chirped twice when I deactivated it. Every kid in the neighborhood was standing around the newest model from the Bavarian Motor Works, admiring the luxury automobile as I opened the front door. I slid behind the wheel to jealous stares from my neighbors. The sounds of raw power filled the street as I gunned the engine slightly, and the tires squealed when I released the clutch a little too quickly, leaving the neighbors to stare after me with their mouths agape. I only took a ten-minute ride before pulling into a garage a block from my apartment. I arranged to house the car on a monthly basis and then walked home. Most of the neighbors had returned to whatever they were doing before the car was delivered, but a few watched me until I was inside my building. I guess I'd just have to get used to being the neighborhood celebrity for a while.

After entering my apartment, I penned a thank you note to the Von Waggermanns and put it on the large 'to-be-mailed' clip I had by my door so I'd remember to mail it.

* * *

I found that I had to keep a tight rein on myself during the drive up to Boston. Designed for use on Germany's autobahn, the new car seemed to want to fly. The fresh air and warm sun of a bright day in May made me feel like I could fly as well. Although I wished I could let the speedometer needle center on 90 mph for a while, I had to keep reminding myself that the large red, white and blue signs on the highway to Boston were interstate highway identifiers and not speed limit signs.

I spent an entire first morning at the Merchendes mansion interviewing the staff and trying to make it appear like I actually knew what I was doing by examining doors, walls, and even the walk-in refrigerator. Having intimate knowledge of the crime made it easy for me to impress them. If they glossed over a fact, I didn't let them continue until they had described it properly.

I also visited the police detectives who had worked the crime. They tried to pick my brain as I pretended to pick theirs. At the request of Mr. Fodor, I stopped into the Boston headquarters of the insurance company and spoke to the investigators who had worked the case from their end. I remained non-committal when they tried to learn what I had discovered so far. The insurance company investigators should have intensely resented my involvement, and they probably did, but they seemed almost cordial. I was sure they had orders to cooperate fully.

I spent the rest of my day on a walking tour of downtown Boston. When I spotted a tail, I led the poor man on a merry chase through narrow downtown streets that didn't allow him an opportunity to disguise his errand. At one point I turned a corner, then immediately stopped and turned to face him. I was leaning against the building when he came hurrying around the corner and bumped into me. He apologized, then walked around me and hurried away. I didn't see him, or anyone else, tailing me again.

In all, I spent four days in Boston. I visited all the places I should visit for the investigation and a few of the major tourist attractions for myself. I got to eat a lot of great seafood and the weather cooperated fully. Overall, it was a fun trip.

After returning to New York, I began to spend time in earnest trying to identify the thieves. It had been easy to match a name with the wealthy man who had initiated the theft, but the muscle was the smash-and-grab type of criminal. They lived in cheap hotels and flophouses. I was able to learn the names of three of the five by reading them off their mail, but the last two eluded me. If only I had audio.

At least twice a week I took time out to have lunch with Kathy, and we went out every weekend. When she asked what I was working on I would only tell her that it was a big case. She tried every trick she knew, but I steadfastly refused to tell her, alluding that it was better she didn't know because it might be dangerous if she did.

There were only three days left of the thirty when I lucked out. The two remaining unidentified men had been arrested after getting into a bar fight in which another patron was shot. I was able to read their names off the police blotter the following morning. I wrapped up my report quickly and went to visit Mr. Fodor at his office.

As soon as I was announced, Fodor said to send me in. In my presence, he asked the two men with whom he'd been in conference to leave and said he'd call them when he was done. He then asked me to take a seat.

"Well, Mr. James, I had expected to hear from you before now."

"This was a difficult one, Mr. Fodor. But then you wouldn't have contacted me and offered so much money if it wasn't."

"Was? You've solved it?"

"Of course. Here's my report."

Fodor read through the report and then looked at me in surprise. "You're accusing Mr. George Henry Bosworth of instigating this crime?"

"Yes, but he didn't only instigate it; he planned it. All he wanted was the one painting. The remainder can be picked up at the storage facility building."

"This is remarkable. Do you know who Bosworth is?"

"Yes, he's a financier who collects stolen artwork he can't buy outright because the owners don't wish to sell and he doesn't have the clout to force them."

Fodor just stared open-mouthed. "You mean there are others?"

"I believe so. He has three paintings hanging in his vault. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that one or both of the others are stolen. I know the Merchendes painting is hanging there."

"How do you know all this?"

"Sorry, our agreement doesn't require me to reveal my sources."

Fodor stared at the report for about thirty seconds. "I can't accuse Bosworth without proof."

"Let me suggest that you have the police round up the actual thieves. No problem with that, right?"

Fodor shook his head. "None, if what you say in this report is accurate. We know from the way they manhandled the Merchendes staff that they're scum."

"Next, pick up the other eight paintings. No problem there?"

Fodor shook his head again.

"Then sweat the ringleader I named and have the detectives tell him that Bosworth has agreed to testify in exchange for immunity from prosecution since he's only a receiver of stolen goods and had nothing whatsoever to do with the crime. The ringleader might be so upset with Bosworth that he'll roll over on him and spill everything. At the very least, he'll probably implicate Bosworth in some way that gives the Boston Police grounds to get a search warrant. If he won't give up Bosworth and the police won't issue a search warrant, then visit Bosworth yourself and face him down. Tell him you know all about the theft and the private vault. Tell him that if he turns over the painting immediately, you'll see that his name stays unconnected, but that he'll be responsible for the recovery fees."

"That might work."

"Two of the thieves were arrested last night in a fight. If I were you, I'd call the detectives who worked the robbery case and have them make sure those two don't make bail. Then they'll only have to find the other three. I'd do that right now."

Fodor picked up his phone and had his secretary place the call. When she got through to the police precinct, he took over and explained the circumstances to the detectives. He used my name when explaining how he knew who was involved. He didn't tell the detectives that he knew where the paintings were located, only that he was on his way up on the next shuttle.

When he got off the phone he said, "Want to go?"

"You don't need me. Everything I could say is in my report. You have my new number if anything is amiss. But it isn't."

"Okay, I'll let you know how things work out."

"I'll stop in tomorrow for my payment," I said with a smile.

* * *

The late news spoke about the recovery of eight of the nine missing paintings. The reporter said an unnamed source indicated they expect to recover the last painting within a matter of hours. They credited police with acting quickly on information received from the world famous art recovery expert Colton James, and that my information was responsible for the apprehension of all five members of the gang that robbed the Merchendes home.

I smiled. "Failed author to successful skip tracer to world renowned art recovery expert. How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm?"

* * *

"Colton James, why didn't you tell me?" Kathy screamed into my ear. It was only a little after eight and I wasn't really awake, having just been aroused by the buzzing phone.

"Hi, Kathy. Tell you what?"

"About recovering the Merchendes collection."

"Did they?"

"Don't you know? They're crediting you with solving the case. Everybody at work was talking about it when I got here, and I felt so foolish for not knowing anything about it."

"Well, I gave them the names and places, but they had to go pick up the people and the artwork. Did they get the ninth painting?"

"Yes, and they arrested some big banker and charged him with masterminding the crime."


"That's the name."

"They also found two other stolen paintings in his house and he's being charged with those robberies also."

"I guess he won't be collecting any artwork for a while."

"So why didn't you tell me?"

"I was afraid that if someone found out I was investigating, the five thugs who committed the robbery might come looking for me. I didn't want to place you in any danger. What I do could have dangerous consequences. If you don't know anything then you're not involved."

Her voice was considerably calmer when she said, "I want to be involved. I don't want any secrets between us."

"I promise there won't be any secrets between us on things that concern us, but I can't reveal certain facts about my work. It would be too dangerous for you to know, or it would cause you to worry incessantly."

"Well, okay. Are you going to return to writing now? You probably haven't done any during the past month."

"Yeah, I was totally tied up with the case. I hope to return to writing now. I might even self-publish and begin promoting my books. That's something I've been considering for a while."

"You won't have to worry about that now. Any publisher in New York would sign you in a heartbeat. You're a celebrity now."

"Not for writing."

"It doesn't matter. You have a name that will sell books, and that's all they're interested in. Why do you think we see so many biographies of famous people? Um, what was the reward for the Merchendes collection recovery, by the way?"

"Two million. Of course, half of that goes to taxes."

"Two million? Oh my God, Colt. Well, you definitely don't have to worry about supporting yourself while you write."

"I certainly have enough to take care of my needs. I've been thinking of looking for a condo on the East Side. Want to look with me this weekend?"

"Um, okay."

"Good, I could use a second opinion. The woman's view, and all that."

"Have you contacted any realtors yet?"

"Not yet. I was waiting until this case was resolved."

"Good, I have a friend who's a realtor. I'll have her call you."

"Okay, what's her name?"

"Peggy MacDonald."

"Tell her not to call before nine a.m. I usually work late during the week and then sleep in."

"I'll tell her. Talk to you later."


* * *

I shaved, showered, and ate breakfast before calling Fodor.

"Good morning, Mr. James," I heard as Fodor picked up.

"Good morning, Mr. Fodor. I understand everything went well?"

"It went perfectly. The gang leader caved the second he thought Bosworth was going to get off scot-free or just be charged with possession of stolen merchandise in exchange for implicating the men who committed the robbery. He named Bosworth as the mastermind who alerted the gang as to when the family was going to be out for the evening and what to steal. We recovered all the paintings plus two others that had been stolen during the past ten years. After the trial, they'll be turned over to the two insurance companies that paid off on their thefts. Both have agreed to share the recovery costs with us."

"And the Merchendes artwork has been authenticated?"

"Yes, it has. At least with a preliminary exam, but we feel certain they're the originals."

"Then I may stop over to collect my payment?"

"Anytime, Mr. James. The check has been cut, and it's sitting on my desk."

"Wonderful. I'll see you in an hour."

* * *

I actually arrived at Fodor's office in less than forty-five minutes. I was announced and sent in immediately.

Fodor stood up, all smiles, and extended his hand. I shook it and then sat down where Fodor indicated.

"First things first. Here's your check, Mr. James."

"Thank you, Mr. Fodor," I said as I took it and stared at all the zeros for a second before folding it and placing it in my wallet. "It's been a pleasure doing business with you."

"Likewise, Mr. James. What will you do now?"

"I'm still thinking of retiring for a couple of years in order to pursue my writing interests."

"Yes, I remember you mentioning that. The reason I ask is because we'd like to put you on retainer as a consultant."

"A retainer?"

"Yes, we were thinking of some nominal sum such as two hundred thousand a year."

"And what would be required of me?"

"Just to be available when we need you. You would still receive ten percent of the insured value of all recovered art and other items."

"I see. So if I had been on retainer now, you would have saved eight hundred thousand."

"Well, yes, but there's the retainer fee as well. We're mostly interested in ensuring that you're available when we need you. You'd have to drop whatever else you were working on."

"I think we can come to terms if you increase the percentage to fifteen."

"Fifteen percent plus two hundred thousand annually?"

I nodded.

"I don't think the board would approve that."

"I understand. I'll try to come after I've wrapped up whatever other cases I'm working on. This way I won't have to drop everything and come running."

"Let me put it to the board. We'll see what they say— but I don't feel hopeful."

"Then we can just stay with the present arrangement, and each case will be negotiated separately. That works for me." I stood up to leave. "Thank you, Mr. Fodor."

"Thank you, Mr. James."

* * *

The young teller at my bank was clearly stunned when she saw the amount on the check I tried to deposit into my two accounts. She looked at me and then excused herself while she hurried over to the manager's desk. He returned with her to her window.

"Good afternoon, Mr. James. I'm Mr. Teseler. I'm sorry for the delay."

"Is there a problem with the check or with my accounts?"

"Oh, no, not at all. It's just a bookkeeping thing because you're depositing to two different accounts. You see, there's normally a five-day hold on large checks drawn on out-of-state banks. Since you're not depositing the full amount into one account, it makes processing the transaction a little more complicated from our end. I've explained to Lillian how to proceed and it'll be just a few more seconds. I only came over because I wanted to meet you. We offer a full range of investment services that will give you a greater yield than what you're presently earning in your accounts. If you'd care to step over to my desk, I can show you what I mean."

"Thank you, Mr. Teseler. Perhaps another day."

"Fine, Mr. James. I'm at your disposal whenever you have the time. Have a nice day."

"Thank you. You also."

The young woman finished the transaction, passed two receipt tickets to me, and smiled. I wished her a nice day and left.

As I walked back to my apartment, I was on top of the world. In just a couple of months, my entire world had turned completely around. It was like a fairy tale come true and I wondered if this was the point where music should start playing in the background as someone says, 'And he lived happily ever after.'

As I approached my apartment building, a black SUV drew my attention. It was parked across the street by the new plywood fence that surrounded the cleared building lot. Normally, a shiny new car wouldn't have made the hairs on my neck rise up, but there were two men wearing sunglasses sitting inside, and both heads seemed to be following my movement. I wondered if I should be nervous. The chance that they represented a criminal I was responsible for putting away was remote but still a possibility. I decided to remain calm and pretend not to have noticed them. I supposed that if they simply wanted me dead, they could have already taken me down in a drive-by. I didn't like guns, but just then I would have paid ten thousand dollars for a 9mm pistol.

Chapter Nine

As I reached my house and began to climb the outside steps, I heard a voice call out, "Mr. James?" I stopped on the first step and turned to face the two men as they waited for a car to pass, then crossed the street. Both men, like me, were wearing inexpensive, off the rack suits and inexpensive ties. They were quite a contrast to the impeccably dressed Mr. Fodor with his five thousand dollar suits and five hundred dollar ties. From their look, I surmised they must be cops. Criminals would either be better or much worse dressed.

"Mr. James?" one of them asked again.

"Yes, I'm Colton James."

"I'm Special Agent Osborne, and this is Special Agent Snow."

Both men produced identification that showed them to be FBI agents. Osborne was Caucasian with eastern European facial features, and Snow was African American.

"Could we talk with you for a few minutes?" Osborne asked.

"Sure, what do you need?"

"In private, please?"

I looked into the face of each man, but there was nothing there I could read. I wondered if they had something of some delicacy to discuss, or if they simply didn't like my towering over them. They were no more than two inches shorter than myself, but the step on which I stood gave me another seven inches or so. I decided it didn't make much difference where we spoke, so I said, "Sure, come on up."

The two FBI agents followed me to my apartment and sat down in the kitchen when invited. I would have been concerned if they had insisted on standing while I sat.

"Beer?" I asked casually.

Both men shook their heads but that didn't stop me from getting one for myself. The size of my kitchen had dictated that my table be on the small side. I had purchased it used, and it had only come with three chairs, so it was pushed against the wall to further conserve space. That left just one chair vacant, and I plopped into it.

"You don't live very high on the hog for a multi-millionaire," Osborne said, looking around the apartment.

"I'm a man of simple tastes," I said, after taking a long pull on the beer bottle. "Now, what can I do for you? If it's about my taxes, I always set the government's half of my earnings aside in a special account to send in at the appropriate time."

"We're FBI, Mr. James," Snow said, "not IRS."

"It's all one big family, isn't it?"

Snowed frowned. "We pretty much each stick to our own turf."

"Okay, so then what can I do for the FBI today? Did you lose something you want me to recover?"

Snow gave me another look that indicated he didn't appreciate my sense of humor.

"You have no staff that we're aware of," Osborne said, "yet you've been swooping in, finding skips nobody else can while solving art theft cases that professional law enforcement agencies have all put on a back burner due to lack of leads. We'd like to know how you're doing it."

"Well, gee fellahs," I said in the phoniest hillbilly drawl I could manage while grinning widely, "if ah told you all ma secrets I'd be plumb outta a job."

Osborne proved that he didn't care for my sense of humor either or at least didn't see any humor in my last response. His stare seemed to indicate that he'd like to take me out back and beat the bejeezus out of me. "We're serious, James. We want to know where you're getting your information. And don't tell us it's just good police work. We know you've never been a police officer or taken any criminal justice courses. We're beginning to suspect mob ties. We're giving you the opportunity to come clean before this moves to another level."

I noticed we had gone from Mr. James to just James. "Special Agent Osborne, I've spent years doing detective work," I said smiling. "I've searched out clues and followed leads throughout my entire working career." I paused to take another pull on the beer bottle and purposely forced a belch. "Of course, I wasn't trying to find criminals. I was trying to resolve difficult computer problems. But logic is logic. I didn't realize how closely aligned our thought processes were until I started writing fiction. The solution is always in the details. Don't you agree?"

Osborne was now looking at me like I was nuts.

I didn't let the look bother me and continued with, "I guess it doesn't really matter to me whether you believe me or not. Is there anything else?"

Osborne scowled and stood up. He was obviously the senior partner. "We can continue this downtown at the office. Let's go."

"Downtown? What's the charge?"

"No charge yet. We just want to talk to you in our backyard since you seem so uncooperative in yours. Let's go."

I polished off my beer, put the bottle down, forced another belch, then followed Snow out of the apartment, with Osborne bringing up the rear. I paused to make sure Osborne pulled the apartment door hard enough to engage both locks before I resumed my walk down the stairs.

Osborne could have been a former New York City cab driver for the way he wove in and out of traffic lanes. I just sat and relaxed in the back seat, my seat belt tightly cinched.

After being led to an interrogation room, I was grilled repeatedly. I assumed there was a voice recorder operating and possibly a camera because Osborne seemed much more formal now than earlier. He'd started the session off by asking me my full name, address, and date and place of birth. He seemed angry that I remained as apathetic as I had been at the apartment. I knew I hadn't broken any laws and owed no explanation of my unique talents to the FBI or anyone else. I also had enough money now to get the best attorneys in the country if I needed them. Wealth and celebrity can give one a tremendous feeling of security in numerous circumstances, false arrest being one of them.

After an hour of questioning by Osborne, during which time I revealed nothing he seemed to be seeking, he left the room. Snow, who had been standing in the corner frowning at me for the entire hour, continued his silent stare.

Osborne returned shortly with another man who had a decidedly angry look on his face. If Snow and Osborne were bad cop and worse cop, this had to be worst cop. He was wearing a much better suit, and I immediately assumed him to be a superior. As soon as he began to speak, I knew my initial impression had been wrong.

"Mr. James, I'm Harv Sobert," he said as he extended his hand. "Would you come to my office please?"

I stood up and followed Sobert, with Snow and Osborne tailing along. I had expected to be taken to a cubicle, or perhaps a room the size of respectable walk-in closet, but Sobert's office was sizeable, indicating he was obviously much more than just Osborne's and Snow's immediate supervisor. The title on the door revealed him to be the Assistant Director in Charge, or ADIC. I knew from research I'd performed while writing a story that the top cop in almost all FBI field offices was a Special Agent in Charge, or SAC, and only the three largest offices in the U.S. were supervised by an ADIC.

"Please have a seat, Mr. James," Sobert said, indicating a comfortable chair facing the desk. As I sat down, he walked around the desk and sat in his chair. "I have to apologize for your treatment here today. I gave orders to invite you down here, but the intent was clearly misunderstood. I wanted to talk with you, not question you."

I wondered if the statement was genuine or if this was another tactic. Snow and Osborne were still in the room but hadn't been invited to sit, despite the fact that there were several other chairs available. I looked on dispassionately without saying anything.

"You first came to our attention after you solved the case in Philadelphia. I'm sure you're aware that the FBI maintains the national database of stolen art objects. I was curious about an unknown who had quickly solved a case that had baffled all the experts, so I ordered a standard background check. I was a bit shocked to find that you had begun your career in law enforcement only very recently."

"I'm not in law enforcement. I leave that to you guys and the other government agencies. I have never represented myself as anything other than a private citizen. I simply find things that other people are looking for. If it pays well, I'll track down people, paintings, or— whatever."

"And you're very good at it. I understand you have a perfect record. It's a small record, to be sure, but it's impressive when one considers what you've been hired to locate. What's more, you get results quickly. That's extremely impressive."

"As you said, I haven't been at it very long. I'm sure my perfect record won't last as my number of cases grows."

"Perhaps, but right now you're being touted by all my insurance company contacts as the greatest sleuth since Sherlock Holmes."

I grinned. "He was a fictional character who could do no wrong, other than having a serious drug habit. I'm just flesh and blood, ADIC Sobert, but I admit to having a minor weakness for a cold beer on a hot day. And I've never claimed to be anything more than lucky."

"It's not luck."

With a slight smirk, I said, "Well, I suppose that, like Holmes, I have excellent powers of deductive reasoning. It's a skill that was highly prized in my previous career in the computer field, as I told Special Agents Osborne and Snow. I doubt I'd be very good at the law enforcement activities you folks undertake."

"Yes, well, that's what I wanted to speak with you about. I wonder if you would consider working for us?"

"What? You want me to join the FBI?"

"I've spoken to the director, and he's authorized me to recruit you."

"I'm honored. I really am. But…"

"But the pay doesn't come close to the multi-million dollar recovery fees you can collect as an independent recovery expert?"

"Yes. I hate to appear mercenary— but I am. I only started doing this for the money. I needed money to support my insatiable writing habit."

Sobert was quiet for a few seconds as he contemplated his next advance. He chose flattery. "I saw a list of free stories you've posted on the internet. I read a few and found the plots very imaginative."

"Thank you. I would rather write than eat, but eating is an absolute necessity."

"We thought the pay disparity might be an— impediment, so we've decided on a special arrangement. We won't put you on the payroll at all."

I smiled. "Non-payment for services rendered is certainly a novel approach, but hardly much of an inducement to work here."

"I hadn't finished. Instead of being on the regular payroll, you'd receive remuneration on a sliding scale for each successful case you solved or each wanted person you delivered. We'd like you to work on cases where our active investigation has stalled because we've run out of leads or where the trail on a wanted individual has grown ice cold."

"You mean like the X Files?"

Sobert grinned. "No. More like the CC Files, where the CC stands for cold case instead of carbon copy."

I smiled as well. Unlike what I'd observed so far with Osborne and Snow, Sobert had a sense of humor.

"We've put together a special payment schedule for different types of cases." Sobert paused and held out a sheet of paper. "If a reward is being offered, such as for the individuals on the most wanted list, you may opt to collect the bounty instead of the amount quoted on the schedule. The incentive for searching for people while working for us is that you'll have access to all the information in our databases. Our advantage is that we get to claim it was solved through an FBI investigation."

I looked at the schedule of payments and was surprised by the amounts. Although they weren't close to the money I could earn for art recovery, they made my earliest skip recovery fee look like chump change. I stared at Sobert for a few seconds. "Some of the bounties on the most wanted get pretty high."

"Yes, but I don't want to delude you; those are highly unusual cases. The chances of one person finding a most wanted is— astronomical. But if you work as quickly on our cold cases as you have on your art theft cases, you can make a tidy sum, even when collecting only the schedule payment. There's also the fact that you'd be helping your country."

"If I was to do this, how many hours would I be expected to work each week?"

"You wouldn't be treated as a Special Agent. In the files, you'd be listed as a Special Investigator."

"I've never heard of that designation being associated with the FBI. Is it just for me?"

"No. While the job title isn't common, it's not unique either. Special Investigators are normally retired law enforcement personnel who perform background investigations, or BI's, for us. We believe this system makes for a more efficient use of Bureau funds. However, this payment schedule was created specifically for you. You'd decide how much effort to put in, but if you didn't produce you wouldn't get paid. And if we found that you weren't paying sufficient attention to the caseload, we'd have the right to terminate you."

I smiled and said, "I sure hope you mean terminate my employment."

"Exactly," he said, and then smiled also.

"And I could still work my other— more lucrative— investigations as I saw fit?"

"No one would be looking over your shoulder. If you needed time for a private investigation, you would just notify your supervisor, then alert him when you're ready to resume work. Once you solved a case for us, you'd step aside and Special Agents would move in to make the arrests and wrap things up."

"I wouldn't have to go through any kind of school, would I?"

"All Special Agents are required to complete and pass a mandatory twenty-one-week training course."

"But you said I wouldn't be a Special Agent."

"You'd be listed in the files as a Special Investigator once you graduated from the Academy and were ready to begin your investigation work, but that's only because you'd be allowed to make your own work schedule and because of the compensation arrangement. Until you graduated, you would be a Special Agent Trainee, and if you graduated, your credentials would say Special Agent. And there may be unique occasions where you'd be required to participate as a Special Agent in certain large operations. You'd have to be able to work as a team member when necessary. It's never a waste of time to learn the law and how to defend yourself. You're a little older than many of our recruits but still well below the maximum recruitment age. You have size and you appear to be in decent physical shape. You played football, didn't you?"

"I was a quarterback in high school and college, but my throwing wasn't as accurate as the other guys so I was only third string. In college I got tired of sitting on the bench, so the coach made me a tight end. I was still available to go in as a QB if the other two guys got injured. They never did. At least they were never both sidelined at the same time."

"That's great. The Academy is sort of like a football training camp in many respects."

"You mean up at dawn, bust your ass 'til dark, study until lights out, and then collapse into bed?"

"Pretty much, except we have a substantially greater emphasis on the academic part, and there are also some night training operations. I can promise you'd hate the training while you were going through it, but if you make it through successfully, you'd never for a second regret it when it was over."

I thought the offer over for a minute. I had obviously been under surveillance. Accepting this job might allow me to continue my gizmo activities without such surveillance because I'd be inside the organization. And being able to better defend myself might come in especially handy if someone came to take my gizmo, or if they were seeking revenge for being arrested.

"Okay, ADIC Sobert," I heard myself saying, "I'll give it a go."

"Excellent. Osborne will take you down to have your temporary ID made, and then we begin the testing."


"Of course. We have to thoroughly test every candidate. We can't just hire someone off the street and give them the keys to the kingdom, so to speak. And we'll have to perform a complete background security check. Our investigators will scrutinize every aspect of your life since the day you were born."

"That must take a considerable amount of time."

"Yes, it does. Months, usually. But you've already passed an initial investigation. If you can pass the written tests and then the oral tests, the full background security investigation will take place while you're at Quantico."

"Okay. When do we start?"

"Now." Looking to Osborne he said, "Take James down to get his temporary ID."

Osborne remained with me until my temporary ID was ready, then took me to a testing room. To me it looked like the interrogation room where I'd been taken earlier. The only furniture in the room was a table and one chair, and there was a one-way mirror on one wall. I wondered how many people, cameras, and electronic devices were on the other side.

Osborne left almost immediately, to be replaced by a young woman with a packet of papers. She explained the procedure and then left me alone. I waited until a voice told me to begin, then opened the packet and began answering the questions. Some were multiple choice and some required a written answer. I had taken a number of written tests for employment after college, but they hadn't come close to the complexity and thoroughness of the FBI test.

By the time I was finished, I was finished. I didn't feel that I had any more in me, but Osborne returned and took me to Personnel where I was handed another thick document and told to fill it out. It was the security questionnaire that would form the basis for the top-secret look into my past. I did my best to answer everything as accurately as possible, but they practically wanted to know when I cut my first tooth. I gave names and last known addresses of friends, fellow college students, and co-workers as best as I could remember, but some of the info was hazy. I wished I had my computer with me because I could have answered questions that asked for telephone numbers and such.

When I completed the questionnaire, a young woman came and took it. She told me to be back the following day at nine a.m. to continue the process and pointed the way out.

My escort, Osborne, was gone, so I walked to the elevator and descended to the ground floor. I passed out of the security area, nodded to a guard, and removed the temporary ID clipped to my breast pocket as I emerged from the building. I flagged a cab and returned to my apartment.

I had to get up early the next day— well earlier than I probably would have if I hadn't had to be at FBI headquarters— so I didn't stay up late writing, which I probably would have done now that the Merchendes case was finished. As I lay in bed before drifting off to sleep, I wondered if I was doing the right thing. I had sort of gotten caught up in everything and really hadn't examined it from every angle as I usually did before making such a heavy commitment. I didn't regret a possible association with the FBI. I loved my country and believed that the FBI was a great law enforcement agency. I was only second-guessing whether I was right for them. I wasn't really a genius investigator. I owed everything to the gizmo. I guess I just didn't want to do anything that would make the agency regret their recruitment effort. Oh, hell, I thought, I probably won't pass all their tests anyway. I had my doubts about some of the answers I'd put on the written tests. I wondered if they were already laughing at some of the responses made by the great art recovery detective Colton James.

* * *

There was an escort waiting for me when I arrived at the FBI headquarters in the morning. It was Osborne. I was more than a little surprised. He didn't say anything until we reached our apparent destination. As he stopped outside a corridor door and pointed to it, he asked, "Ever been to hell, kid?"

"Uh, not yet," I said.

"You're about to get your baptism."

"It's only a test, isn't it?"

"You tell me— after it's over." I was surprised when Osborne extended his hand to me and said, "Good luck, kid."

I took his hand and shook it, but said, "I don't understand."

"You will. This is probably the last time we'll talk. I don't think you have a chance of passing."

I smiled at him and said confidently, "Sure I do. You made it after all." I wished I felt as confident as I tried to sound.

Osborne grinned and said, "We'll see," then turned and walked away.

I took a deep breath and opened the door. The room was a good size, but almost devoid of office furniture. An eight-foot table with a woman and two men sitting behind it faced the door. There was also a single, empty, straight-backed wooden chair facing the table.

"Come in, James," one of the men said.

I closed the door behind me and walked towards the chair. The woman told me to take my seat.

"Before we start," one of the men said, "this is your last chance to come clean with us. If you were less than accurate with anything you've written or said up to now, tell us. After this, if we discover you've lied or omitted information, you'll be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law."

I was really taken aback and must have looked a bit foolish. But I shut my mouth and composed myself before saying, "I have been completely honest in everything I've said or written. If I've omitted anything, it wasn't intentional. It would be the result of a lapse in memory. I couldn't recall all of the exact dates when I filled out the security questionnaire yesterday, so I answered to the best of my recollection. If I put June where it should have been July, it was not an attempt to deceive."

"You stated that you tried marijuana during college," the other man said. "How many times have you smoked it during the past three years?"

"Not once. I was never a heavy user. I've never even purchased any. I tried it a few times at parties where a joint was being passed around. It wasn't my thing."

"You're sure that's the story you want to go by? This conversation is being recorded."

"It's the truth. It's the only story I have."

The man looked at me with skepticism, but I stared back with a resolute expression.

After that, the grilling began in earnest. They would ask me a question, and before I could answer they would ask another. Many of the questions were similar to ones I'd answered on the security questionnaire, so it seemed like they were trying to trip me up to see if I would answer differently today. Then they started throwing scenarios at me, such as— if I was in such and such a situation, how would I respond? It was difficult to keep my thought processes organized when three people were rapid-firing questions at me because I was both trying to listen and compose my answers.

The grilling lasted for over an hour, but it felt like eight. When they were finally done, the woman pointed to the door and said, "That's all, James."

I didn't know if I should say anything or just leave, so as I stood up I said, "Thank you," then turned and walked out. I had never even gotten their names.

Osborne was waiting outside the door. He looked at me and chuckled before saying, "How'd you do, kid?"

"I don't know. What month is this?"

He chuckled again and said, "C'mon, I'll walk you out. You probably want to go home and have a beer."

"Maybe even two," I said. I was seeing a whole different side of Osborne. He had dropped the 'no nonsense professional cop' persona I'd seen originally and seemed to be treating me almost like one of the FBI family. He was still businesslike, but the authoritative demeanor had vanished.

Before I passed through the security area at the entrance, I said, "What now?"

"Someone will be in touch when the people in charge reach a decision."

I nodded and left.

* * *

I needed to get my head screwed back on straight, so I turned to writing and forgot everything else except Kathy. Over the following week, I made time to have lunch with her three times. During the first lunch after my recruitment when I broke the news to her about possibly becoming an FBI Special Investigator, she slammed her fork down onto the table. "I thought you said no more secrets?"

"What are you talking about? I'm telling you about it, aren't I?"

"But people don't just decide to join the FBI and then disappear off to a training school. How long have you been thinking about this?"

"First, I didn't decide to join. I was recruited. They picked me up, took me to FBI headquarters, and told me they wanted me to work for them. It happened so fast I didn't have time to tell you first. Would you rather I didn't agree to take the job?"

"I thought you were going to take time off and do some writing. Now you tell me you're going to be in even more danger than before."

"It's not necessarily more dangerous."

"Don't tell me that. I've watched X-files. Practically every week they're in a shoot-out of some type."

I chuckled. "That's television. It's all phony. People wouldn't watch if it was as boring as real life. Do you know that most New York City cops never fire their weapon in the line of duty during their entire career?"

"What about FBI agents?"

"I'm not going to be a Special Agent. I'm to be a Special Investigator. And that's only if I pass all their tests and then pass the course at the Academy. All I'd do is look at evidence, hunt for clues in the computer files, and then point them to the right path if I find anything. I wouldn't have to arrest people or anything. I wouldn't even be wearing a gun."

"No gun?"

"I swear. Want to search me now?"

Kathy grinned. "Not right now— maybe tonight in my apartment."

I smiled. "You're on. But I get to do some searching also."

* * *

The following week I received a call from the Bureau telling me to report to headquarters at nine a.m. the following morning. When I arrived, I was directed to Personnel. Once there, I was told to be seated so I could begin filling out a thousand forms.

"Then I passed the tests?" I asked the woman who was showing me what I had to fill out.

"Apparently. At least the first tests. You'll still have to pass the rigorous academy course. Until that happens, you're a Special Agent Trainee. You have no authority to conduct an investigation, interview a suspect, or to make arrests on behalf of the Bureau."

By the time I had finished filling out the forms, I was getting writer's cramp in my right hand. It was so much easier to key in the data on a computer, and I expected that one day we'd be able to fill out forms simply by speaking the data, or perhaps only thinking it.

I had a week to devote to writing before I had to leave for the academy, and I spent as much time with Kathy as her job would allow because I'd be away for five months. We spent the weekend before my departure looking at condos.

* * *

I took an early commuter flight to Virginia on Sunday morning. I had given Billy a set of keys to my apartment door and the first-floor entrance door and asked him to check my flat occasionally to make sure everything was secure. I'd also filled the fridge with as much beer as it could hold, expecting that he'd like to grab a cold one while he was there.

Over the next twenty-one weeks, I went through the training program alongside the other recruits at Quantico. The physical fitness requirements were the most difficult for me personally. I was out of shape, and during the first month there wasn't a second when my body didn't ache somewhere. And quite often it seemed to ache everywhere. But slowly, things got easier and the pain deadened appreciably. I knew that by the end of the twenty-one weeks, if I made it, I'd be in the best shape of my life. I also knew that it would have been so much easier seven years ago when I'd graduated from college.

Like most New Yorkers, I'd never really liked handguns. Perhaps that came from the fact that so few New Yorkers were allowed to own them. Cops were armed, naturally, and most criminals who had graduated from committing petty crimes carried a gun, but elected officials in New York City had long ago decided that the general population had no right to have handguns. There seemed to be a contrary relationship between gun laws and violent crime in reported statistics. In those places where handguns were the most restricted, homicides were at their highest levels. That was reportedly true on a worldwide basis. While the U.S. had, by a substantial margin, the highest level of gun ownership in the world, its per capita gun violence ranked among nations having the lowest levels. Having listened to anti-gun spin-meisters over the years, I had refused to believe that until I actually investigated on my own and assembled my own statistics from official reports. Even so, I still didn't like handguns. But it was explained to me that every agent or investigator had to be able to use a gun, even if he or she never had occasion to draw it.

While training, I was exposed to a wide variety of different firearms and required to exhibit a minimum proficiency with a pistol, shotgun, assault rifle, and submachine gun, but I was expected to exhibit a higher level with my service weapon, a Glock 23 forty-caliber pistol. I spent an inordinate amount of time on the practice range, working until I could draw the weapon and fire it fast enough and accurate enough to pass. I believed I only had to get through the training and then never worry about it again, so I threw myself into the task and managed to qualify. My only problem occurred when it was explained that I was required to carry my weapon at all times while on U.S. soil.

"But I'm to be an investigator, not an agent," I had responded.

"That's only a file designation for your work assignments and payment schedule. When you graduate from the Academy, you'll be a Special Agent and considered field personnel. And all field personnel are required to carry their service weapon at all times."

"But I promised my girlfriend I wouldn't be carrying a gun."

"Then you'll have to explain the real situation to her."

I just grimaced and cursed under my breath.

Some of the training at the academy was a breeze, and I zipped through training in computer work and report writing. As a computer expert and writer, I hadn't anticipated problems with either.

The other training presented more of a challenge. Every trainee was required to study the basic fundamentals of law, ethics, behavioral sciences, and interviewing. Additionally, studies in investigative techniques, interrogation, and forensics were a key part of the effort. We also studied topics ranging from counterintelligence to cyber crimes to weapons of mass destruction.

The physical training included grappling, holds, handcuffing a suspect, and disarming techniques. We practiced proper vehicle operation, surveillance, intelligence gathering, and operation planning. Since Special Agents may be involved in bank robberies, kidnappings, bomb threats, and hostage situations, trainees participated in practice sessions with actors hired for the exercises.

There were days when I swore I'd never make it, but I did complete the training and graduate. The director himself presided over the ceremony and handed each of us our badge and ID at the event.

As I headed back to New York, I'd been wearing the pistol every day and didn't even think about it until I entered the metal detector at the airport and set off an alarm. TSA security and police looked anxiously at me, their hands ready to draw weapons. I put up my hands and said, "FBI," then slowly produced my ID. The TSA guard admonished me for not producing my ID earlier. I apologized profusely, telling him my mind had been on a very tricky case. Everyone went back to doing their jobs as I walked casually to my gate.

* * *

Kathy felt the gun the first time we embraced, and she pulled away immediately. "You said you wouldn't carry a gun," she said angrily.

"I'm sorry. I didn't intend to, but they told me I have to. I have to wear the stupid thing wherever I go. I have no choice. I don't want to wear it."

"You mean you'll have that thing on wherever we go?"

"Not everywhere. I can take it off when I'm in the house."

"Is that supposed to be funny?"

"Well, maybe a little. Look, I have to wear it. Just pretend it's a cell phone or something. It's on safety so it can't go off accidentally."

"What else aren't you telling me?"

"Nothing. That's everything. No knives, brass knuckles, blackjacks, or poison capsules in my teeth."

"You're trying to be funny again."

"Just trying to lighten the mood. I was as upset as you are. I told them I was to be an investigator, not an agent, but they said I'm field personnel, and all active field personnel must carry a personal firearm. No choice. Just ignore it. I don't intend to ever draw it."

Kathy scowled and then moved in and hugged me. "If you wear that to bed, I'll use it on you."

I laughed. "No problem, hon. I already had all the weapons I need in bed before I joined the FBI."

* * *

On Monday, I reported to FBI headquarters and was admitted after showing my ID. The beep from the metal detector was ignored as I passed through. I went to Personnel first and was directed to the office of my new supervisor. After a fifteen-minute wait, several people came out and I was told to go in.

"Welcome, James, I'm Brigman," the man behind the desk said. "ADIC Sobert has filled me in on your unique employment arrangements with the Bureau. I'm to assign you to the top two cases we'd like you to concentrate on, give you a desk with a computer terminal, and let you go to it. If you somehow manage to find something that the best damned investigative agents in this entire country have missed, you're to report that information to me. In the meantime, you'll have exclusive responsibility for these cases. Do you need anything else?"

It wasn't difficult to recognize the intense hostility in Brigman's voice. "No, sir. I don't even need the desk. I've loaded the Bureau's secure remote access Citrix software into my home computer and I have my IDs and passwords established. I'm ready to go."

"Very well, James. Here're the two cases." He handed me a piece of paper with two case file numbers on it. "If there's nothing else, go to it."

I stood up and extended my hand, but Brigman was looking at a report on his desk and ignored it. I dropped my hand and walked from the room. Brigman couldn't have missed the gesture even if he'd been reading, so I understood my position. My supervisor didn't want me there because he feared I would make him and other agents look bad. I couldn't care less about getting credit for solving cases. I'd be just as happy not to get any credit— as long as I got paid.

Chapter Ten

I hailed a cab after leaving FBI headquarters and headed uptown to my apartment. After changing into shorts and a tee shirt, I spent the next several hours reading through pages and pages of investigation reports on my computer. I was definitely a lot more comfortable doing it in my apartment than downtown.

Solving cases with the gizmo would be easy. But I knew that with the FBI, I wouldn't be able to get by with a statement about my information sources being confidential. I would have to be much more creative. It was necessary that I know everything in the files thoroughly to develop plausible responses for later when I was asked how I was able to solve the case.

The first case was a bank robbery. A video showed two thieves entering the bank brandishing sawed-off shotguns. Dressed entirely in black, including full-face ski masks, dark goggles, and gloves, they herded the few customers and staff to the center of the room. After forcing them to lie down on the floor, one watched them while the other spray-painted the lenses on the bank's cameras. Commands were single words, spoken almost as grunts to disguise their voices. The rest of the story was assembled by accounts from the witnesses. One robber had an earphone and grunted a couple of times into a mike, so there must have been three, or possibly more, involved. One was probably responsible for monitoring police frequencies to determine if a silent alarm had been activated or if witnesses outside the bank might have phoned in a report.

One of the thieves used plastic ties to secure the hands of the hostages to the ankles of fellow hostages. When done, the entire group was linked as one large ring. The leg of one hostage was further attached to a building support column, ensuring that the group remained stationary. Then one of the thieves took two duffel bags into the vault and filled them with money, mostly twenties and larger, while the other watched the entrance and kept an eye on the hostages. There was an exceptional amount of cash on hand in used bills, the bank having just received the weekend receipts from a large music concert and a monster truck rally, and the thieves concentrated on taking only the stacks of used bills.

The robbery took just twelve and a half minutes. The thieves exited the bank without hurting anyone, and it was another fifteen minutes before another customer arrived and discovered the crime. He used a pocket knife to cut some of the plastic ties and then the robbery was phoned in to the local police.

Police immediately cordoned off the area and began a search. Two teenagers found riding skateboards on the street behind the bank gave accounts of seeing two Hispanic men dressed in black clothes drive off in a light blue pickup truck. They described it as 'maybe a Dodge.' They were able to give reasonably good descriptions of the men, who appeared to be the robbers without their ski masks, but the teens hadn't had any reason to look at the truck's license plate. A bulletin was immediately dispatched to all law enforcement agencies to watch for the truck and the men.

The plastic ties used to secure the hostages were available in most home improvement and hardware stores, including the local Home Depot. There were very few other clues. An analysis was performed of the bank's videos for height and weight information. The FBI also computer-analyzed movement of the perpetrators and compared them to other bank robberies. No matches were found. Sketches of both men were prepared with the help of the two teenagers, and those images were widely distributed.

Since the bills weren't new, there wasn't a list of serial numbers to watch for. No one matching the descriptions had been picked up, and there hadn't been any reports of a stolen, light blue Dodge pickup truck. The robbers had apparently gotten away clean. It didn't appear there would be anything to go on until the robbers struck again, and during the past year, no one matching the basic description and MO had committed other robberies. The net haul from their one job had been two hundred twenty-six thousand dollars. Not a bad haul for less than thirteen minutes' work, I thought, though not as good as I'd been able to accomplish legally with the help of the gizmo.

Put plainly, the FBI and all law enforcement agencies were stumped. There just wasn't enough evidence to continue the investigation, which was why they had assigned it to me. It was impossible to track the unmarked, used money, and unless the robbers struck again there was no way of establishing a pattern for identifying the individuals.

I decided it would be necessary to visit the bank location, so I made plane reservations before disconnecting my computer from the telephone connection. I packed my suitcases, showered, and dressed, then called for a cab to take me to the airport.

* * *

I had purposely not used the gizmo since returning from Quantico. I didn't know if I was still under surveillance, and they might have even put something in my apartment while I'd been away. After checking into a motel in the robbery city and tightly closing the drapes, I put the gizmo on a wall and started looking at my apartment, beginning with the day I had been visited by Snow and Osborne. I stayed up for hours, watching the front door to my apartment in a fast forward kind of mode by constantly adjusting the 'minutes' keypad. No one except Billy and myself had entered during the entire period. Still, I decided to invest in some professional electronic 'sweeping' equipment when I returned. I had enough money to buy the best now.

God, I thought, I am really getting paranoid. But I didn't forget the old saying that goes: Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

Satisfied that my apartment hadn't yet been bugged— yet, I turned in.

* * *

The next afternoon I drove my rental car to the bank where the robbery had occurred. I had awakened late because of the traveling and because I'd stayed up watching my apartment for so long. I showed my ID to the manager and asked for a little time.

"It's not that I don't want to cooperate with the FBI, but how many times am I going to have to retell that story?" the manager, a Mrs. Cromsby, asked with a hint of irritation in her voice. "It's been a year now, and it seems like every month another one of you folks shows up to ask about it and ask if I've remembered anything new."

"I'm probably going to be one of the last. I only get cases that are so cold I have to be careful not to get frostbite. The leads in this case are slim. I'm sort of the last resort team. It appears that little more can be done unless the robbers strike you again."

"My God, you don't think they'd come back here again, do you?"

"It's possible. They had an excellent haul and have gotten away clean, so far. It's the Christmas buying season and I'm sure you're handling a lot of cash from merchants. Criminals have been known to return to a location and rob it again under such circumstances. We want to catch them before that."

"Well I'll certainly tell you everything I know, Special Agent James. You know, your name is just like the name of the famous art recovery expert who's been in the news so much this year. Are you any relation?"

"Uh, yes, but I'd appreciate it if you didn't mention it to anyone else."

"Oh, I understand. It must be embarrassing to see him get all kinds of press coverage for his investigations while you just work quietly for the government and do your job without much fanfare."

"Something like that."

Mrs. Cromsby nodded sympathetically. "What would you like to know from me today?"

"I'd just like to see the vault where the cash was stored. And I don't imagine you've remembered anything else you forgot to mention to earlier investigators?"

"No, nothing I haven't already stated a dozen times. Follow me and I'll show you our vault."

Mrs. Cromsby led the way to the vault and pointed out where the money had been.

"The report says the cash didn't contain any exploding dye packs."

"That's right. The cash had just been delivered by armored car and hadn't been processed yet."

"Does that suggest the bank robbers might be familiar with your operations?"

"Not necessarily. We weren't sure when the money would arrive, so I don't know how anyone else could have been unless they had a contact inside the armored car company or one of the two event venues."

"Did they have any difficulty carrying the cash?"

"Well, there were only two of them. Money is heavier than most people realize. Think of how difficult it is to carry a large box of photocopier paper. They used our vault cart to transport the filled duffel bags through the bank and out the doors. I'm sure they would have been too heavy for a normal person to carry."

"Were they military-style duffel bags?"

"They were just large, black, canvas-like bags. I don't know if the military uses the same ones."

"I understand. Has anyone else remembered anything since the crime that might not have been reported? The smallest detail could be important. Sometimes employees discuss a robbery over coffee and someone remembers something they didn't realize they knew or didn't think was significant."

"Not that I've heard. We were all terrified. I tried to remember all I could, but we never got a good look at them. I can't even tell you their skin color. And they wore those dark goggles, so we didn't see their eyes. I'm reasonably sure they were both male, but they made us get down and look down at the floor. We didn't have an opportunity to see much after that except what you see from the corner of your eyes."

"I'm sure it was a harrowing experience. I'm glad no one was harmed. Thank you for your cooperation, Mrs. Cromsby. I'll be around for several days, and I may stop back if I have any more questions. We want to catch these people so they don't put anyone else through what you experienced."

"Thank you, Special Agent James. I'll be happy to cooperate in any way I can."

"Thank you. Good day."

I left the bank and walked around outside. I hadn't yet used the gizmo to watch the robbery because I wanted to experience the case as the other investigators had. I walked away from the building through the parking lot, then turned to get a complete perspective of the area. I next walked through the alleyway alongside the bank. It was believed the robbers had approached the bank from there, donning ski masks and goggles just before entering the bank. There were no outside cameras. The alley led to a street behind the bank, and it was there that the skateboarders reported seeing the bank robbers drive away.

There was very little traffic this time of day, and only a couple of cars passed while I walked around behind the bank. Across the street was a wooded lot, further limiting the opportunity to find any witnesses. I continued walking around the building housing the bank until I was back in the front parking lot where my rental car was parked. As I stood looking at the bank building, a police car pulled up. Its lights began flashing as the two officers got out.

"We've had a report of a suspicious individual walking around the bank. May we see your ID, sir?" the police officer asked.

I unbuttoned my suit coat to get to my inside pocket and a sudden breeze caught one side, whipping it open. The second officer yelled "Gun!" and both pulled their weapons.

"Take it easy, guys," I said calmly as I raised my hands slowly. "We're on the same side. I'll show you my ID." I reached into my coat pocket slowly and lifted out my ID wallet. Holding it up, I flipped it open.

The first police officer walked towards me cautiously and took the ID wallet, comparing the picture before returning the ID and holstering his weapon. The second officer holstered his as well.

"Sorry, Special Agent James," the first officer said. "People around here have always been curious about strangers, but ever since the bank robbery, they're positively paranoid and report every stranger they see."

"Understandable. And I won't criticize anyone for reporting strangers who appear to be acting suspiciously."

"I assume you're looking into the bank robbery?"

"Yes. I was just assigned the case yesterday."

"You should have checked in with our Captain so we would have been alerted to your presence in the area."

"I see that. I'm glad you're so alert. Was either of you on duty the day the robbery occurred?"

"I was with one of the first units to respond. Joe here," he said pointing to the second officer, "was on vacation."

"Yeah," Joe said disgustedly, "the only bank robbery in my three years on the force, and I miss it."

"Not much to miss as I understand. The crooks were long gone before the call was even made."

"They had plenty of time to get away all right. They were probably thirty miles from here before we arrived and got a basic description."

"Did you see the two kids who witnessed the perps driving away?"

"Yeah. They were down at the station for hours. It took a while for the sketch artist to arrive and do her thing. They were driven home as soon as she completed the drawings. Those robbers were ugly cusses, according to the kids."

"No wonder they wore masks," the officer named Joe joked.

I nodded. I'd seen the sketches in the file. "I'll stop in and see your Captain now. What's his name?"

"Ed Marcove."

"Okay, guys. Thanks."

* * *

I drove to the station and introduced myself to the captain, who looked at my ID closely. Where the two young officers were in good physical condition, the Captain probably had trouble tying his own shoelaces.

"Special Agent Colton James, eh? Why is that name so familiar?"

"I've been involved in a couple of art recoveries. I've only just begun working for the Bureau."

"That's it. The robberies in Boston and Philadelphia. I read about them. Both were cold cases when you started investigating. Spectacular work, James."

"Thank you, Captain. I was lucky."

"I hope you get lucky on this one. It appears that our felons got away clean."

"So far. But we'll get them. It's only a matter of time. The most surprising thing is that they haven't pulled another job yet. Successful crooks usually keep working at it until they take a fall."

"Yeah, but these guys seem to have dropped out of sight. They did make quite a haul though. It might be that they haven't gone through all the money yet."

Although the Captain was horribly out of shape from a physical standpoint, I had no doubt that he had a sharp mind. Having read all the reports, I was sure he had conducted his investigation properly and extended every courtesy when the FBI Special Agents arrived to assist.

"Perhaps. Either that or they're possibly incarcerated somewhere on another charge. Don't worry, we'll get them."

To this point, I didn't have a clue as to the identity of the thieves. There were a few things that didn't add up, but nothing that would point to the identity of the perpetrators. It was time to watch the robbery, so I headed back to my motel room and took out the gizmo.

After watching the theft from several different angles, I tagged each of the perpetrators. Then I followed them outside and watched as they dragged the duffel bags through the alleyway to make their escape. Learning the identity of the thieves was quite a revelation. Proving it was going to be difficult, and explaining how I figured it out was going to be even more so.

It was dinnertime, so I washed my hands and left to find a decent restaurant.

* * *

I remained in the area for several more days, just hanging around and re-interviewing all the people named in the case file. On Friday, I returned to New York. I went out with Kathy on the weekend and we looked at a couple of available condos on Sunday.

The following week I holed up in my apartment, working on the computer and preparing my report. Since I didn't have proof of what had happened, I detailed the sequence of events and named the suspects. It would be up to the Bureau and local law enforcement to prove the case by confronting the perpetrators with the evidence after their arrest.

After completing my report, I sent it to Brigman, then relaxed and enjoyed some time working on my latest story. I intended to take at least a week off to do some writing before looking at the other case.

* * *

A message was left on my voice mail two weeks after submitting my report. I was instructed to be at Brigman's office at nine the next morning. I took a cab downtown and was admitted after showing my ID. I was here so infrequently that the officers on duty were never going to recognize me as working out of the New York field office, but I told myself that was okay.

I sat in Brigman's outer office for over an hour and was starting to get fidgety when I was finally told to go in. Brigman was there with several other people— two men and one woman. I had met all three of them previously when they'd administered the second part of the entrance test. Brigman told me to sit down without introducing them. It was a few days before Christmas, but no one in the room seemed very festive. Their moods gave me a sense of dread.

"How did you come up with this wild theory, James?" Brigman asked, holding up a file folder that I assumed contained a copy of my report.

I wasn't going to acknowledge anything unseen. "What theory, sir?"

"Your bank robbery theory. What else?"

"It's the only thing that makes sense. The people in the area are definitely suspicious of strangers now, but I can't say what their attitude was before the robbery. However, I suspect someone would have noticed strangers hanging around, casing the bank. That indicates that the perps had to be local— somebody people see all the time and never even think about."

"But why these people?"

"It's logical. The facts don't fit any other scenario I've been able to put together."

"So you really believe two teenagers pulled off this heist? They drag the money out of the bank, then use their skateboards to roll it to a waiting car parked on a back street where a third perp, possibly a girlfriend, is waiting to take it away? They quickly peel off an outer layer of clothes that includes some padding to make them look older and heavier, toss it in the trunk with the money, and after she leaves they calmly wait around to be arrested?"

"Yes, sir. I believe that's the only way it could have gone down. And I believe they expected to be questioned, not arrested. People in the neighborhood would have noticed the boys out there just before the robbery, and if they were suddenly gone when the police arrived, it would have been suspicious. The boys were only teens by virtue of being less than eight months short of their twentieth birthdays when the robbery was committed. Their plan allowed them to give a false description of the vehicle and alleged occupants, thus sending authorities on a wild goose chase. It also diverted attention from the real vehicle, which I suspect is parked in the girlfriend's family garage just a mile away."

Brigman dropped the folder on the desk and looked at the other people. "Well?"

"Imaginative," the woman said.

"I told you he was a writer," Brigman replied. His emphasis on the last word seemed almost derisive.

"I don't buy it," one of the men said. "I watched the interview tapes. Those kids— correction— young men, were too calm. Only professionals could be that collected."

"I figure they were clean when they hit the bank," I said, "to avoid mistakes. After the accomplice drove off, they popped a pill or two. Maybe even three. When you watched the tape, you believed they were witnesses. Watch the tapes again, thinking of them as suspects. Pay close attention to their eyes."

Brigman and the others in the room were silent as they thought and looked at one another.

It was the woman who broke the silence. "Do we have any reason not to proceed?" she asked.

"No, the scenario is entirely possible, however wild," the man closest to Brigman said.

"Then I suggest we pick up these young adults and interrogate them— as possible felons this time," the woman said. "Let them know we know all the facts and see if we can get a confession out of them. I don't suppose you know where the money is, James?"

"No, ma'am. It could be anywhere. I couldn't look for it without tipping my hand to the young bank robbers. I decided it was better to file the initial report and wait until they were picked up."

"That'll be all, James," Brigman said. "Unless you think you've also solved the other case we assigned you?"

"Not yet, sir."

"Well, get hustling, James. We're not paying you to sit around polishing the seat of your chair with your pants. That's all."

I stood up, nodded to the three people in the room and left. I had come all the way downtown for this? I thought as I entered the elevator for the ride to the lobby. I could have answered those questions over the phone. I hadn't even been told the names of the three other people in the room. From our previous acquaintance and the way they talked and acted, I knew they were FBI, but that was all.

* * *

Angry over the way I'd been treated, I spent another week writing and lounging around before looking at the second case.

I had picked up a stunning diamond necklace as a Christmas present for Kathy when I'd returned from investigating the bank robbery. She had become very important to me and I wanted her to know it. I also wanted her to become a permanent part of my life, but I didn't want to frighten her off by moving too fast. Although she'd kept telling me the necklace was too much, I knew she loved it because she couldn't stop looking at it. Every time she passed a mirror, she paused and smiled as she touched the necklace lightly. She made my Christmas a very merry one as well since we spent almost the entire day in bed.

* * *

My next case was a kidnapping gone wrong. The victim was a wealthy, middle-aged businessman. During the kidnapping, he had managed to open the rear door of the car and fall out. With his hands bound behind him, he hadn't been able to protect himself and had died from a broken neck upon landing on the pavement. The kidnapper's car had slowed and then sped away as other cars stopped to investigate. The car turned out to be stolen, and nothing recovered in the car pointed to the perpetrators.

I reviewed all the material in the case file, but I waited until the New Year's celebrations were well over before I visited the scene of the death, visited the man's home, and interviewed all the family members, servants, and friends. I filed my report three weeks after starting my investigation.

* * *

As before, I was called downtown to Brigman's office to explain my report. The same three unidentified people were there.

"It's the only logical scenario, given the facts," I said. "Nothing else comes close to fitting as perfectly."

"But you have no proof," Brigman said.

"That's correct, I don't. I've named the perpetrators and shown you motive and opportunity. Someone else will have to do the interrogations and get the confessions. All I can say is that I've identified the people responsible. Since the kidnapping failed, there was no chance of catching them with evidence. There was no payoff, so you can't even recover money as you did with the bank robbery."

"That was excellent work with the bank robbery investigation, by the way," the still unidentified woman said. "The young girlfriend broke down and confessed before they were even out of her family's house. It happened exactly as you surmised. All the money has been recovered. A week after the robbery, the young felons had buried it on family land."

"Thank you."

"You're absolutely certain you've identified all the players, James?" Brigman asked, apparently trying to return the discussion to the kidnapping and keep me from getting any more praise for the other case.

"I'm fairly certain of the ones I've named. I found no evidence of others."

"Okay, James. Here're your next two assignments. Get cracking. That's all."

I reached out and took the sheet of paper, folded it twice and placed it in my inside jacket pocket. I stood up, nodded to the three other people in the room, and left. Brigman's attitude was starting to rankle me.

I tossed my keys down on the kitchen table as I entered my apartment and walked to the fridge for a beer. I wasn't sure what I'd expected when agreeing to work for the FBI, but what I was getting certainly wasn't it. I wasn't looking for fame or notoriety, but I also didn't expect to be made to feel like an unwelcome intruder each time I made an appearance at the office. I had passed all their tests and successfully completed the training at the Academy. I was a Special Agent by virtue of my abilities and hard work, even if I didn't work a normal caseload. I sort of understood Brigman, though. I was making good agents— agents who had put in hundreds of hard hours on the cases— look inefficient and ineffective by solving the cases in days or weeks. I believed my investigative skills were improving, but without the gizmo I would be as clueless as the others who had worked these cases. In some ways, I felt like I was cheating, but the important part was that I was closing cases.

I unscrewed the cap on the beer bottle and took a sip as I lifted the cover of my laptop. I'd finally secured a cable internet connection after returning from Quantico, so access was practically instantaneous. I had also recently purchased electronic equipment to sweep for bugs and other devices, and I used it every few days. So far, I'd found nothing. I hoped I was using it correctly.

I hadn't answered my email for a few days and now was a good time to catch up. It always brightened my day when I received email from fans who had enjoyed my stories, and I could have used a little sunshine in my life right then.

I responded to each of the letters by thanking the fan for writing and promising that more free stories were on the way. I'd written a couple of short stories between the two FBI cases, but they needed some rewrite work before I posted them.

Near the end of my email was a letter without a subject. I opened it and read, 'You've seen how dangerous the device is. Destroy it now, before it's too late. You don't have much time. Death is near.'

There was no mistaking the ominous tone of the new message. Death is near? Whose death— mine? I checked the special directory I had set up after first getting the gizmo in order to reread the second message I'd received and to see how many others had come in. The file was empty. I checked the trash bin and discovered that the very first email warning had likewise disappeared. The presence of other discarded emails proved that I hadn't emptied the trash bin, so it seemed that the email sender was somehow able to remotely control my computer.

I'd known for some time that someone knew I had the gizmo. The first email telling me to destroy it had arrived before I even knew I had it. I'd long believed the only way someone else could have known was by using another gizmo to track the one that had fallen into my hands. What I still couldn't understand was why no one had ever shown up and made an effort to retrieve it. I was certainly aware of the potential dangers that possessing the device presented, but I had received so many benefits that I had tended to push them to the back of my mind. Without the gizmo, I could never have solved even one of the cases, so I knew how important it was to my continued success.

I still had no intention of destroying it or surrendering it without a fight, but I had to find out where it had come from so I would be prepared for whoever might attempt to acquire it, or reacquire it. I may have already procrastinated too long.

I thought about it for a few minutes and then logged into the FBI computer system, searching until I found the information I needed. It was still before noon when I left my apartment. As I drove my car out of the garage, I aimed it towards Jersey.

Chapter Eleven

Using my new GPS device, I had no difficulty finding the building I intended to visit. It had snowed a few days before, but the roads were clear and dry all the way to Paramus. The building was one of those three-story, mirrored-glass-front places just off Route 17 that reflect the sky and appear to blend into the landscape. I supposed it was a nice change from the hulking granite structures of the last century that we had in New York, but I always wondered if they'd stand the test of time. I guess I just liked permanence.

I parked in a nearly empty visitor lot directly in front of the building and walked to the front door where I had to stand in the bitterly cold wind until a security guard buzzed me into the lobby. As I walked to the circular security station a dozen paces from the door, the guard watched me warily.

"I'm looking for Morris Calloway," I said. "He in?"

"You must sign in before I can even check, sir," the guard said, pointing to a clipboard on the chest-high counter.

I printed my name and entered FBI in the Company Name column. The guard took the clipboard and read what I had entered, then looked up at me. He seemed to stare at the slight bulge near the left lapel of my suit coat a little longer than necessary. I had purchased half a dozen tailored suits since my last art recovery, and while they were a major improvement over the off-the-rack suits I had been buying, they didn't completely hide the bulge from the Glock pistol under my left armpit. I knew I had to find a tailor who could do a better job disguising a shoulder holster.

After a couple of seconds, the guard said, "May I see your ID?"

"Sure," I said, reaching for my ID wallet. I flipped it open so he could look at it and waited until he was satisfied.

"Okay," he said, as he reached for the phone. He punched several numbers and said, "Mr. Calloway? There's an FBI agent here. He's asking to see you." After a second he said, "Yes, sir. Very good, sir." To me, he said, "He'll be right out."


"You FBI guys get paid pretty good, don't you?" the guard asked.

"Not bad," I said. "We're still civil servants though."

"Better than twelve bucks an hour?"

"Ah, yeah. Better than that."

"Is the FBI hiring? I need something that pays better than this gig."

"Go online to the FBI website. You can get an application there. Complete it and send it in."

"Me and computers don't get along too well. I don't understand them."

"Well, that's a major part of doing federal investigative work. Perhaps the local police force might suit you better."

"Yeah, maybe."

A door near the rear of the reception area opened and Morris Calloway hurried out. He rushed over to the counter and stared at me for several seconds with a quizzical expression before saying, "Hey, Colt," then glanced around the reception area. To the guard, he said, "Where's the FBI guy, Gus?"

"Right there," the guard said, pointing to me.

Morris began chuckling. "He's not FBI. That's Colton James. He's just an IT guy. We used to work at the same electronics company in Flushing."

"He has an FBI badge that sure looks real," the guard said.

"I have a gun, too," I said, pulling back my jacket flap to expose the butt of the forty caliber Glock.

Morris looked down at it, stopped chuckling, and then looked up to my face. "You're with the FBI now?"


"How long?"

"Long enough."

"What do you want with me?"

"I'd like to ask you a few questions."

"What about?"

"We should do this in private," I said.

Morris glanced at the guard, then back to me. "Yeah, sure. Follow me."

We had to pass through three security doors in order to reach the lab where Morris worked at the rear of the building. Each required an eight-digit entry.

"Security here is tight," I said as the door closed behind me.

"Yeah. They change my door access and password codes every ninety days. It's a real pain in the ass. Now what is this about? Do I need a lawyer?"

I looked around to make sure the lab was empty. "No, it's not about you. I need someone to take a look at something and give me a professional opinion."

"The FBI has some of the best lab people in the world. Why come to me?"

"I need this to stay under the radar for now. It's hot. Super hot, in fact."

"What is it?" Morris asked, his curiosity aroused.

"Before I show you, I need you to understand the danger involved. If anyone, and I mean anyone, learns of this, it could mean your life. You can't tell a soul about this. Not ever."

"What is it?" he asked intensely. "Is it military stuff? Top secret? I had a DOD Top Secret clearance at my last job."

"I don't know. I only know that if someone learns you have it, or only thinks you have it, your life won't be worth a nickel. Are you willing to take a look at it?"

"You can ask me that after the buildup you just gave it?"

"I need you to understand the danger. So far you're not involved."

"So involve me already," he said anxiously. "I promise I won't tell anyone. Come on, Colt."

"Okay, Morris," I said, then hesitated and looked around. "Uh, are there any cameras in here?"

"Are you kidding? No way. This place is super secret. They don't even want their security people to have a clue about the things we're working on. The only cameras are all outside the building or in a few common areas like the lobby and break rooms."

"Just remember that I warned you repeatedly." I removed the matchbox from my pocket and slid it open. Morris watched my every move closely. When I removed the piece of paper and opened it, his eyes widened appreciably."

"What is that?" he asked, reaching for the paper as I slipped the matchbox back into my jacket pocket.

I held the paper beyond his reach, but he could clearly see that it was creaseless. "As I said, I don't know. Since it came into my possession, I've been able to learn very little about its origins. But I've learned enough to know that people would kill to own it."

"Simply because you can't crease it?"

"No, that's only a miniscule part of its value. But rather than me telling you about it, why don't you tell me what you surmise."

"I can't tell you anything until I can hold it," he said, scowling.

"Okay, here," I said as I placed it into his grasping fingers.

Morris took the sheet over to a workbench where he turned on a light so excessively bright I had to turn away for a second until I got used to it. He ran his fingers over the surface of the gizmo for several minutes, feeling for either imperfections or creases, then folded it repeatedly and allowed it to open again. "There's not a sign of a crease," he said as he held it up to the brightest light in the lab to see how much light passed through. "And it's totally opaque," he said. "It might as well be made of tin. It's incredible," he said as he shook his head gently. "What else does it do?"

"You tell me."

"I'll have to examine it."

"Then examine it. Just don't damage it."

"I'll have to cut a small sliver off the edge for the test that determines composition."

"No slivers. I said no damage."

"I can't do a proper test if you're going to hamstring me."

"No damage!" I said loudly and forcefully. Taking the gizmo from his hand, I said, "Forget it, Morris. I'm sorry I bothered you."

As I began to fold the gizmo so I could store in the matchbox, Morris said, "Okay, Colt. No damage. I promise."

I looked at Morris for a couple of seconds, then unfolded the paper and held it out. "If you damage it, I'll shoot you."

Morris scowled and sighed, then carried the paper to another workbench. Removing a large magnifying glass from a desk drawer, he bent over to examine the paper under another bright bench light.

"What the hell?" he suddenly said to himself.

"What is it?"

"I must be imagining things. Let me look at it under the microscope."

Morris slid the paper onto the stage of a compound microscope and aimed the light to shine down at the paper. He twisted the revolving nosepiece or turret that held the objective lenses until he got the magnification power he wanted, then put his face to the two eyepieces. He made no sounds for several seconds as he adjusted the focus, then said, "What the f—." He stopped and changed the magnification and stuck his face up against the microscope eyepieces again. As he slid the paper around the stage slowly, I could tell he was getting more and more excited. After changing the magnification to the highest setting and then staring through the eyepieces again as he shifted the paper, he quickly uttered, "Holyshit, holyshit, holyshit." Morris pulled away from the microscope to turn and face me. "Okay, level with me. Where did you get this?"

"It's need-to-know."


"It's need-to-know business, and you don't need to know."

"I need to know if you want answers to your questions."

"You don't need to know where I got it to evaluate it. Just tell me what you can deduce."

"All I can state with absolute certainty so far is that you have a piece of paper that isn't made from the ordinary wood and cloth fibers normally used to create paper. And since nobody is going to spend millions of dollars to develop ordinary paper that removes creases, there must be another purpose."

"And what do you think that other purpose might be?"

"Well— back around 1955, a researcher named Jim White at DuPont noticed some strange polyethylene fluff coming out of a pipe in an experimental lab. The company began working with the material, and around ten years later they trademarked the name Tyvek as they began to market it."

"Yeah, I'm familiar with it. It's used for shipping envelopes and construction products because of its impermeability and strength."

"Yeah, that's right. It has all sorts of uses. A couple of countries even used it to make currency for a while, but it's certainly not creaseless. Anyway, imagine if you took a sheet of something like Tyvek and covered it with flexible microdots that could heal creases, then added all the nanocircuits you could fit on the paper, each of which could perform thousands, or even millions, of calculations per second. Can you imagine what you'd have? A flexible, paper-thin computer made with trillions of nanocircuits. Maybe even trillions of trillions of nanocircuits."

"So you're saying that this might be a supercomputer?"

"More than a supercomputer. From what I saw under the microscope, this could be the most powerful computer ever built. It could reduce a supercomputer to the equivalent of an abacus in a comparison of capability. And it's in a completely portable form that you can fold up and put in your pocket. If it works, all you need is an interface device, like a keyboard, or perhaps just a VRT and a monitor."

"VRT? You mean Voice Recognition Technology?"

"Yeah. With the right instruction set, the world's most powerful computer would be able to understand English as well as you or me. Perhaps it would understand every language ever spoken or written."

I nodded slowly as I thought about the gizmo's capabilities. It made sense that it would take a super powerful computer to do those things. But I still had no idea how it did them. There had been a lot of talk and speculation about nanoscience and nanoelectronics during the past decade. Recently, scientists had been speculating about nanobots that could be injected into a person's bloodstream to seek out and find dangerous organisms or cells like cancer and destroy them. It was an exciting time for scientists working in that field, and it appeared that someone had made a significant breakthrough.

Like many of his co-workers, Morris thought of himself as smarter than most other people on the planet simply by virtue of his job title. He was a scientist, after all, and looked down on others not in his field. In the reception area, Morris had told the security guard that I was just an IT guy. But I had a BS in Computer Science, and I wasn't a dummy in anyone's eyes except people like Morris.

"You don't look surprised," Morris said. "What are you holding back?"

When I didn't answer, Morris said, "Come on, Colt. Give."

"Who do you think made it?" I asked.

"I have a few ideas, but I'm not sharing if you won't." Morris turned, walked over to his desk, and sat down.

I took a deep breath and released it slowly. I didn't want to tell Morris, but I needed more information, and if I didn't share a little of what I knew he wouldn't say another word about his speculations. I'd already shown him the device, and I hadn't wanted to trust another person with even that basic information.

"Okay, I'll show you what I've learned," I said. "But before I do, I want you to swear you'll never tell another living soul. I'm serious about this. It could mean your life and mine. I haven't told anyone else in the world about this."

"Stop grandstanding," Morris said as he came back over to the workbench. "I know how important this issue is."

"Okay. Watch."

I removed the paper from the microscope and carried it to the nearest wall. Morris followed along behind me eagerly and watched with curiosity as I placed the paper against the wall and then removed my hand.

"Yeah. So what?" he said, as he stood at my side. "It sticks to the wall. I can buy a hundred balloons for a dollar that will do that trick."

I had preset the gizmo before I left the house in case I had to demonstrate it. I touched the spot that turned on the gizmo and an image of the Statue of Liberty appeared. Morris jumped back at least two feet and backpedaled a bit more before falling to the floor, just as I had when I first experienced the effect.

"It's a viewer," I said nonchalantly.

"A viewer?" Morris echoed as he stood up and moved back to a position next to me. He was as breathless as I had been the first time. "What's its power source?"

"You tell me."

Morris placed his hand against it. "It's not hot. The flow of electrons always generate heat. All supercomputers generate massive amounts of heat. How can it not do that?"

"You tell me."

"Well, the size of the nanocircuits helps substantially. The less distance electrons have to travel, the less heat that's generated. But 'no heat' is virtually impossible— unless the heat is somehow recovered and used to further power the viewer."

"You mean as in a perpetual motion machine."

"That same principle, yes. And if the energy requirements to begin the process are miniscule, I suppose the power could come from the light in the room."

"You mean like solar energy?"

"Sort of. It's incredibly less powerful, of course. We also have to consider EM fields as an initial energy source. We're all constantly bombarded by electromagnetic radiation these days. I'm sure you've heard of the possible danger from constant cell phone usage."

"I thought that was all debunked."

"The jury is still out on that one. The telecom companies all say no danger, while doctors and unbiased researchers have differing opinions that say there are some health risks even if the phones don't cause cancer. Uh, what does it view?"

"Anything you want. Keep watching."

I took Morris on an excursion of New York harbor as if we were on a tour boat, but several times I stopped and performed a quick three-hundred-sixty-degree turn to show this wasn't a pre-recorded event. However, I don't think he really bought the fact that it was live until I provided irrefutable evidence. Withdrawing a piece of paper from my pocket on which I'd earlier written down the GPS coordinates of the lab, I brought up the keypad and entered the numbers as Morris looked on. The exterior of the building suddenly jumped into focus. Months of experimentation with the gizmo had made me an expert of sorts, and I slowly moved the image into the building, right past Gus the guard, and down the corridor we followed to get to the lab, all without entering a single security password. I stopped when an interior view of the lab where we were standing filled the screen. I positioned the event window behind us, looking at our backs.

Morris had been genuinely intrigued by the image and justifiably excited until he realized the image of him on the gizmo was a live picture. Up to that point, he might have thought I had secreted a tiny video camera on my person and was playing back a recording I made as we entered, although he should have realized that I was behind him the whole time as we walked to the lab and that he would have been in every frame. He turned to see the camera, but when he saw nothing, a wild-eyed look came over his face, and he started hyperventilating. His body was shaking as if he were cold.

I grabbed him and shook him to get his attention. "Morris, get a grip," I said loudly. "Breathe slow and easy."

He looked at me and nodded, but it was a couple of minutes before his breathing stabilized and his lower lip stopped trembling. And he was still far from being calm and composed when he walked towards where the event window was positioned. He waved his arms gently as he drew closer, passed through it, and then slowly returned. When he estimated that he was just behind the window, he waved his arms up and down and from side to side for a full minute before returning to where I was standing.

"Incredible," he said as he stared at the gizmo. "I couldn't hear or feel a thing. No one would ever know the camera was there."

"I think of it more as an event window than a camera," I said.

"An event window? Yes, perhaps that's more apropos." Turning very serious he added, "Now level with me. You found this in a government lab, didn't you?"

"Did I?"

"Who else would have something like this? It has to be some special project the government is working on. It might even be alien technology from a crashed UFO. My God," Morris said, getting more excited by the second as he speculated about possible uses, "can you imagine a spacecraft where the interior surface is covered with this technology— no more clunky instrumentation taking up every square inch of usable space? They line the interior with these nanoboards and the rest of the space is usable for living area, food storage, and oxygen regeneration."

"Take it easy, Morris. I don't think we're ready to head for Alpha Centauri just yet."

Morris stared at me for a second as he reoriented his thinking. "Level with me, Colt. You stole this from a government research lab, didn't you?"

"I've never stolen anything from the government or anyone," I said. "I've never even cheated on my income taxes."

"Then where did you get it? Who made it?"

"I was hoping you could tell me who made it."

"As far as I know, technology like this is still only being dreamed about. Oh sure, scientists have been working in nanotechnology for years, but comparing the current state of the art to this is like comparing the Wright Brothers' first paper-kite plane to a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The basic principles of flight that apply to each might be the same, but the level of technology isn't even close."

"I can't tell you any more than I already have. I was hoping you might be able to give me clue as to its origins. Apparently not."

As I took the gizmo from the wall, Morris became noticeably agitated.

"Look Colt, leave it with me for a few weeks, and I'll devote every minute to it that I can. I have access to an electron microscope in the city. I'll examine every last nanometer of the gizmo. If there's any clue to its origin on the device, I promise I'll find it. Believe me, I want to know as badly as you do. If there's somebody out there who can produce this kind of board, there's millions to be made. I'll mortgage my house and buy every share of stock I can get."

"Careful, Morris, that might be called insider trading," I said jokingly. But Morris wasn't in a joking mode.

"What inside? I'm not inside anything. It's called careful analysis of available technology and economic feasibility, then gambling on the outcome. That's what buying stock is all about."

"Sorry, Morris, I can't leave it."

"Two weeks then."


"One week."

"Nope," I said as I finished folding the gizmo and putting it into the matchbox."

"Is that how you transport something worth millions of dollars?"

"It works. If I get mugged, no one would ever steal a matchbox that contains a blank piece of notepaper."

"Look, just leave it with me for a few days. I promise not to eat or sleep until I've examined every last nanometer on the gizmo. Just a few days. I promise," he added desperately.

"Sorry, Morris, it's too dangerous to have this in your possession. I can't leave it with you for even a few hours."

"What if I can arrange a meeting between you, me, and a top scientist in the field of nanotechnology? Would you come?"

"No. Weren't you listening when I said you can't tell anyone about this? Don't you realize how dangerous knowing about this is? People wouldn't hesitate to kill to get their hands on it. This would be an end to all secrets. Anyone could spy on anyone else, and the other party would never suspect they were being watched. And I know that people in power aren't ready for a world without secrets."

"Tell that to the NSA. Say, is this how you were able to recover all that artwork? By spying on people?"

"The crimes I investigated all occurred months and even years ago. Watching people going about their daily business wouldn't help anyone solve those crimes."

"So then you found this at the scene of a crime and pocketed it for yourself."

"No, I didn't."

"Then just tell me where you got it. That's all I ask."

I sighed and said, "Don't tell anyone about this if you value your life. The wrong people could hear, and someone will come looking for you. They'll torture and kill you to get the information. If you're smart, you'll forget you ever saw this."

All Morris did was nod. I wished the gizmo could have let me see what he was thinking.

I pulled my coat tightly closed to protect myself from the cold wind that sought to steal my body warmth as I walked to my car. The engine started easily and I let it warm a bit before leaving the parking lot. As I sat there, I realized I had warned Morris just as the mysterious emails had been warning me. I hadn't listened. Would Morris?

Chapter Twelve

All the way back to Manhattan, I thought about the hour I'd spent with Morris, and what I'd learned— and what I hadn't. Technology beyond what humans were presently capable of producing, coupled with emails that mysteriously appeared in my computer and told me to destroy the gizmo, were enough to make anyone uneasy— especially the emails that had arrived without traveling through the normal mail server distribution system. I had no idea how they reached my laptop. And I was no closer to knowing where the gizmo had come from than before my outing across the Hudson.

However, the talk had actually eased my mind in some respects. Yes, the technology was advanced, but that didn't make it the stuff of fantasy. Every great leap forward in technology had been technology beyond what humans were presently capable of until it was recognized that we were in fact capable of doing it. The invention of the telegraph, then the telephone, then wireless communications were all technologies beyond what humans were capable of until someone made them a reality. There was nothing magical about the gizmo. Sure, it was a supercomputer on a sheet of paper, but the technology to make it was already being developed. Someone had just made an incredible leap forward a little sooner than expected.

I parked my car in the garage, pulled on my heavy winter overcoat, and walked home, still deep in thought. Rather than going right up, I sat on the steps of my apartment building for a while. Being January, it was cold, but the sun was out and that helped warm me a bit as I looked at the fenced, empty lot across the street.

The device had come to me the night the building had exploded. Without any prompting from me, Morris suggested that the technology might have come from an alien spacecraft. What if my wild idea for a story about the building's destruction wasn't so wild after all? What if an alien spacecraft really had crash-landed there? Suddenly I felt like such an idiot. In all the time I'd had the gizmo, I had never used it to investigate the source of the explosion. Maybe Morris was right. Maybe non-scientists weren't as bright as people who worked in labs. Nah, I didn't really believe that. I had just been so caught up with the thrill of using the gizmo, and then so occupied with the whirlwind turns my life had taken, that I hadn't taken the time to reflect properly on events that had occurred around me.

I jumped up and hurried upstairs. Since I intended to use the gizmo at home, I first closed the blinds and drapes and spent an hour sweeping the apartment for bugs. As usual, I didn't find any. I again hoped that I was using the equipment properly and that it was working properly, because if anyone were watching, they were about to get an eyeful that would blow their mind.

As a further check, I looked for wires and signs of construction activity like drilling or cutting or clean areas that shouldn't be that clean. I even checked to see if the dust bunnies under my bed and furniture had been disturbed. Nothing seemed out of place, but I did make up my mind to vacuum the next day.

Satisfied that no one was watching or listening, I put the gizmo against the wall in the kitchen and dialed in the latitude and longitude of my building, then set the time and date for one hour before the explosion. I moved the viewing window out of my house and through every part of the apartment building across the street. In areas where there was enough illumination to see, I didn't find the presence of any living thing except mice, rats, and cockroaches. I even moved it through the ground under the apartment building in case there was a secret lab below the basement. All I found was darkness everywhere to a depth of three hundred feet.

Other than a gas leak, it appeared that no other pre-existing situation could have caused an explosion. The gizmo didn't provide olfactory readings, so I couldn't sniff the air in the apartment building for the presence of natural gas.

I next moved the window forward in time until just a few seconds before the explosion and watched the roof. As far as I could see, nothing crashed into the building from above. I moved the window around to a number of vantage points and watched the explosion over and over. I even froze the image at the exact instant of the explosion and examined every square foot of roof and wall space. My conclusion was final. Nothing hit the building. That meant that the explosion had occurred from forces inside an empty building. The gas leak theory was gaining credibility. The explosion certainly wasn't owed to the crash of an alien spacecraft.

I next moved the window into the building and located the flash point of the explosion. Fortunately, it had occurred in a third-floor location where there was enough illumination to see the surrounding space just before the event. I watched in ultra-slow motion as the explosion occurred. A second before the explosion, there was nothing discernible at that spot. In fact, the entire area was completely empty. That pretty much confirmed the gas leak theory.

Still, two mysteries remained. One, what was the source of the ignition if it was an explosion that resulted from a gas leak? And two, since the gas leak theory had been spread by the authorities and media, I'd continued to think of it as an explosion, but from the lack of debris outside the perimeter of the apartment building, I knew it had actually imploded. If it had been a gas leak explosion, debris could have traveled for blocks. I knew there was only one more avenue I could investigate.

I set the gizmo to show my initial discovery of the paper in the pile of scrap on my kitchen table. I touched one of the dots that allowed me to follow a person or object, then worked backward towards the implosion.

My theory of where the gizmo had come from was correct all along. It did come from the apartment building. But when I tried to follow it back to before the explosion, I reached a dead end. At one point it didn't appear to exist and the next it did.

Following my investigation, I still had no evidence of where the gizmo had actually come from. It was just— there. However, I knew for sure it didn't come from an alien ship that had crashed into the apartment building.

I had no idea where to go from this point in my quest to learn the origin of the gizmo, but I knew what Morris would do in my place. He'd hop on a plane for California to discuss the problem with the professors at CalTech or take a shuttle to Boston to discuss things at MIT. At the very least, he'd jump into his car and drive up to Cornell. He would also most likely lose the gizmo, and perhaps his life, within twenty-four hours. I didn't intend for either of those things to happen to me.

* * *

I had just twisted the top off a beer when my landline rang.

"Hey, bro, whassup?" I heard when I answered.

"Not much, Billy," I said. "How are things with you?"

"Same oh, same oh. You're a tough man to get a hold of these days. I'm glad to finally find you in."

"Yeah, I've been spending most of my evenings with Kathy. She's out with her girlfriends tonight."

"So, how are things going?" Billy asked. "I hardly see you guys anymore."

"Things are great. She's fantastic. I'm glad you kept pushing us to get together."

"Buy the ring yet?"

I took a long pull on my beer before I answered. "Not yet. I don't want to frighten her off by moving too fast."

"Bro, you couldn't frighten her off with a shotgun."

"Funny you say that. I thought she might leave me after I joined the FBI and she learned that I had to carry a handgun all the time."

"Ya know, I still can't believe you took a job as a fed. You were doing so great with the art recovery gig."

"I'm still available for that kind of work. In fact, I got an email query just yesterday."

"What'd you say?"

"I told them I'd consider it."

"What's the payday?"

"Three million eight."

"Niiicce," he said, drawing the word out slowly for effect. "You should go for it. It'd make for a nice wedding gift."

"Yeah, that's true. I've been thinking about it. I could certainly use the money. It amazing how little one million seven will buy in the real estate market these days."

"Are you kidding?"

"No. Kathy's friend kept showing us the nicest places in her listings, so when we looked at the places I could afford, they seemed almost— shabby. I need about five mil to get something nice for Kathy."

"What happened to the rest of the money? Didn't you make two million off that one deal?"

"Yeah, but Uncle Sammy and Auntie Albany take half of everything I earn. I need to make about eight million more in order to have enough to buy the kind of home I'd like for Kathy."

"What you need is one of those accountants like the other millionaires and Wall Street bankers have. What was it that multi-billionaire Democrat buddy of the President said— he pays a lower tax rate than his secretary? You gotta climb on that greed bandwagon, bro. The lobbyists have already done all the hard work of paying off politicos to create tax loopholes for them. All you gotta do is find a good tax accountant who knows how to take advantage of a system that's already been corrupted to make the rich richer."

"It goes against the grain."

"I know, but the Wall Street fat cats and politicos are raping this country big time and reaming the middle class, so if you can't fight 'em, join 'em. And my advice on real estate, bro, is to forget the skybox seats and stick to courtside."

"Are you kidding? Courtside is twenty to thirty mil. The skybox people spend a hundred to two hundred mil for their condos and co-ops. At five mil we're practically talking nosebleed seats."

"Gee, I'm glad I don't have your problems," Billy said with a chuckle.

"Go ahead and make fun," I said. "But I've made up my mind not to ask Kathy to marry me until I can give her the kind of home I want for her. Me? I can live anywhere. This place is just five hundred eighty square feet, and it's always been fine. But I wouldn't ask Kathy to live here."

"From what I understand, her place isn't much larger."

"That's true, but what's fine for one person isn't always enough for two. And it's not just about square footage. I want a nicer neighborhood with good schools."

"Schools? You planning to need them?"

"I kinda thought we might at some point. I'm twenty-nine now, and Kathy is twenty-six. It's time we started thinking about kids."

"Have you talked to her about that?"

"Not yet."

"Better do it before you propose."

"Why? What do you know?"

"Nothing, bro, honest. But some career women aren't interested in giving up their jobs to breed a litter of rug rats and curtain climbers. So if you want kids, better make sure you're both on the same page before you make the marriage commitment."

"I take it you have no interest in 'rug rats and curtain climbers'," I said with a chuckle.

"I'm really not the big daddy type— I'm happy just the way I am. Although I would like something softer to hug on a continuing basis than my pillow, it seems I keep getting involved with women who can't wait to procreate. Somewhere out there is a woman who's both as selfish as I am about sharing her life with a houseful of kids and who can love an ignorant slob like me. I just haven't found her yet."

"Keep looking, Billy. You're a great guy, and you'll find your Kathy eventually."

"Yeah. In the meantime I'm having fun going out for test drives."

"And just for the record, you'd make a great father."

* * *

I worked late into the night on free stories, so after breakfast the following noon, I decided I should do something more financially productive. From my wallet, I removed the paper containing the two FBI case file IDs Brigman had handed me during my recent visit to the office. I accessed the FBI intranet system and entered my password.

The first file was an unsolved serial killer case from twelve years ago. The case had been covered with the usual thoroughness of all FBI investigations but had not resulted in any arrests. Since the initial active investigation ended, the case had been reassigned twice to other Special Agent teams. Neither team had been able to advance the case, and it had gone inactive again after three months of investigation. According to the file information, the murderer had killed at least four women within seven weeks and then simply stopped. He had never been identified. Several months after the fourth victim had been taken, the four bodies were found at the same location. The initial report speculated that the murderer might have been arrested on other charges and incarcerated. The investigation team had examined every arrest record within a hundred mile radius for a three month period from the date of the last disappearance in their effort to identify the killer. It was important that he be identified and charged with the murders before he could begin again if and when he was released. There was no statute of limitations on murder.

The other case was a bank robbery with a kidnapping. Bank robbers typically did not enjoy long careers. With the commission of each crime, the chances of getting caught increased substantially and the penalties were high. When kidnapping was added in, the criminal was almost assured of spending a good part of the remainder of his or her life behind bars, assuming no one died during the crime. The criminals had gotten away with the crime and no one had been seriously injured. The kidnap victim had been found dazed and wandering on a back country road the next day but was unable to provide any new information about the perps.

I figured the serial killer case was the more important of the two, especially if the perp was now free and presented a possible danger to the public. Solving the case quickly was important, but the killer had been inactive for twelve years, so what was the possibility that he would begin again today? I decided it was important I become familiar with all aspects of the case, so the gizmo would remain in its storage box for now and I would tackle the case the old-fashioned way. I opened the case file and began reading.

The details were horrific. I remembered hearing about the murders back when they were occurring, but I was just a teen at the time and paid little attention. Most young men of seventeen— and I was no exception— were normally driven by their hormones at that stage in life. Mother Nature imposed just one, all-consuming thought throughout their day, and so, depending on the status of their love life, they tended to be less caught up in insignificant happenings such as murder, crime, politics, and other events that didn't affect their lives from a sexual standpoint.

In spite of teen distractions, I remembered the basic details. At the time, only images provided when the women went missing had appeared in the media. However, the FBI case file contained the autopsy pictures. The partial decomposition of the bodies was enough to make people ill, so it was understandable they weren't provided to the press. Whoever the murderer was, he was a monster. Forensics had shown that the killer had mutilated the victims' genitals and removed body parts but hadn't engaged in sex, either before or after their death. That meant there were no bodily fluids or pubic hairs from which DNA could be secured. There was a note in the file that said information about the mutilation and missing body parts was not to be shared with anyone outside of the official investigation until the case was solved.

Serial killers usually followed a pattern, but there were many inconsistencies about these murders. The first victim had last been seen alone on her way to a shopping mall, and her car was later found in the parking lot there. Another had been alone at a library and had asked the librarian to please hurry when checking out her books because she had to catch a bus. The third victim was known to be at home alone, and there was no sign of forced entry or a struggle. Her car was still in the garage. The final victim had last been seen riding her bicycle home. The undamaged bike was later found over an embankment and not visible from the road.

One thing consistent among the victims was that their bodies all contained traces of a drug normally used by veterinarians to euthanize pets. It could induce a coma-like state in the human body and even kill, but none of the victims had died from that. Three had been strangled, and the other had died from a broken neck.

The case file was enormous, as one would expect from an investigation such as this, and seemed to contain every relevant fact except who committed the murders. Hundreds of people had been interviewed, and there was a report for every interview. Thousands of man hours had been expended during the investigation. I wished I had a hard copy.

When I finally got tired of reading from the computer, I checked to make sure my printer was filled with paper and had plenty of toner. When the file began printing, I went to rest my eyes.

As I refilled the paper drawer for the third time, I promised myself I was going to get a new printer with two large-capacity drawers so I didn't have to babysit the paper supply. And the new printer should be one of those high-speed jobs where printed pages were spit out faster than a mouthful of soured milk. Maybe I'd even get one of those new color laser jobs. I grinned as I thought of how I used to fantasize about the things I'd love to have, and now I could get them. And the printer would even be tax deductible. Life was good.

When the printer had done its work, I sat down again to study the reports. Having my own hard copy meant I could use a highlighter pen to mark everything I felt might be important.

Many hours later, some of the documents looked like those seen on the news during congressional hearings where information has been redacted, leaving only a few words visible here and there. Of course, since I was using a highlighter instead of a black magic marker, every word was still readable.

I needed to stretch my legs, so I went for a walk to pick up the local rag at my neighborhood newsstand. New York City residents had an undeserved reputation for being unfriendly, but nothing could be further from the truth if they knew you or at least recognized you as a neighbor or as the friend of a friend or friend of a neighbor. It was only their general mistrust of strangers that made them seem distant. I'd always enjoyed a very cordial relationship with all of my neighbors, but since I'd been 'outed' as a detective, things had changed. When I was just a poor, struggling author, I could always engage any of my neighbors in friendly conversation, but now those conversations seemed a bit stilted. I didn't know if it was because they feared being too open with me because of my involvement with law enforcement, or if they feared being too close because of my perceived violent life. For my part I continued to remain as I had been before, and I always addressed them by name if I knew it.

Only old Mrs. Schmidt, my next door neighbor who hung her wash out to dry almost every day of the year, seemed completely unchanged. She was at the newsstand and we enjoyed five minutes of conversation that centered mostly on the explosion of the apartment building and the eyesore the fenced lot now represented. She told me that as much as she was sorry to see the old building go, she was delighted with the new double-pane windows that had replaced the her old single-pane windows. She said her house was much warmer in the winter and quieter in the nice weather.

A mountain of work still awaited me, so I finally ended our conversation and trudged home. I'd always put work ahead of pleasure because I couldn't properly relax while I had tasks waiting.

A day later I had read through the full report— twice— besides the read where I had used the highlighter, and I didn't have a clue how I would proceed to learn the perp's identity without my electronic edge. I knew how frustrated the previous investigators must have felt. It was time to use the gizmo.

I performed a full electronics sweep of my apartment and, as always, found nothing. Then I put my cell phone into the special case I had bought that would block all signals both in and out. Even GPS reporting was neutralized while it was in the case. I disconnected the television and the new cable box I'd purchased because of disturbing news stories about how the cable companies now have the capability to spy on their patrons without their consent. Lastly, I flipped the switch that disabled the landline into the apartment. That meant no wired interception of electronic signals from my computer or the house phone was possible. I had never detected any attempt to spy on me, but that didn't mean there had been none. I doubted I was so important as to justify satellite time, but there could be someone in the neighborhood with eavesdropping equipment or the simple video monitoring equipment such as that used by the police for surveillance. I knew someone was watching me, if the unusual emails in my computer were any indication, but it seemed that could only be someone who had a gizmo like mine.

Once I knew my apartment was secure, I took out the gizmo and put it on the wall over my kitchen table. I had earlier established the latitude and longitude of each incident, so it took me just minutes to pinpoint the location and approximate time of the first abduction. I found the victim's car and then backed up the time of day until I saw her arrive, at which time I tagged her so I could follow her travels without constantly adjusting the location manually. Then I just sat back and watched. I had no idea how long it would be before the perp showed up, but when he did I couldn't help uttering, "Son of a bitch."

Chapter Thirteen

When the victim had parked and exited her car, the perp was waiting. I certainly hadn't recognized that this could be the perp initially and would later understand why no one had ever reported seeing anything suspicious. All I saw was a tall, dark brown delivery vehicle with gold lettering like tens of thousands of others on the streets and highways of the U.S. and other countries.

As the truck rolled up behind the victim's car and stopped perpendicular just inches from her rear bumper, the woman stopped walking towards the shopping center. She turned and walked back to the truck that was now effectively blocking her in. Since she had just arrived, it was unlikely she wanted to leave, so she probably wanted to learn why the delivery driver had practically parked on top of her car, or perhaps it was to see if his van was touching her car.

As the woman reached the van's right door, the driver stepped down from his high perch behind the wheel and slid the door open. I wished I could have heard what she said, but it probably wasn't important. The driver simply reached out, grabbed the woman, and pulled her into the truck, sliding the door closed as her feet cleared the track. She looked so surprised that she didn't even scream before a piece of cloth was held tight against her face. My guess would be that the cloth was saturated with the drug used to euthanize animals. The woman went limp in seconds, and as the driver dragged her into the rear of the truck, it was apparent that this wasn't a genuine delivery vehicle. All of the vehicles like this I had seen in New York had racks built onto the high walls to organize and hold packages. I guessed the perpetrator had purchased a vehicle like the ones used for deliveries and painted it to appear genuine, then purchased a uniform similar to the genuine ones worn by legit delivery people. The height of the vehicle had blocked the kidnapping from the sight of everyone not on the right side, and the perp had simply waited for a victim until there was no one visible between the right side of the truck and the mall. It had happened so fast that it was doubtful anyone would have seen anything anyway, and who really paid attention to parked delivery trucks? They were everywhere during the week.

The ruse was so effective that the perp had used it for each of his attacks. The second victim had been standing at a bus stop on a deserted street when he pulled up. He opened the right door and said something that made her lean towards him. Perhaps he was asking about an address, or perhaps he mumbled something unintelligible and she leaned in to hear him better. Whatever he said, it was enough to draw her close enough that he could grab her and pull her in, as he had done with the first woman.

The third victim had been at home when the driver came to her door. He said something, then gestured towards the truck. I assumed he might have told her that he had a package for her. There had to be something else, such as telling her that the box was damaged and that because it was so heavy he'd like her to come look at it before he carried it all the way to the house. She walked willingly to the truck and then disappeared inside when he grabbed her and pulled her in.

The fourth victim had been riding her bike when the truck pulled up alongside her. There were no other vehicles in sight when she stopped and listened as the driver said something to her. As she leaned towards him to respond, he leaned out and literally yanked her off her bike. Two seconds later she was on the floor in the rear of the van with the cloth being held over her face. When she stopped struggling, he left the cloth on her face and jumped out of the truck to dispose of her bike. After pitching it over the embankment, he glanced around quickly before hurrying back inside.

The first three women had offered almost no resistance, so the driver may have gotten a bit careless with the fourth, or perhaps it was because this was the first time evidence had been left outside in plain sight after the victim was pulled into the van. He needed to get rid of the bike before a passerby noticed it on the ground next to the truck. Whatever the reason, it seemed he hadn't held the cloth over the face of the fourth victim as long as he had with the others. As soon as he left the vehicle, the victim pulled the cloth off her face. She was incapacitated and unable to get up, but she still had some motor functions left.

After reentering the van, the driver moved into the rear area. He noticed that the cloth was no longer on her face and that she was trying to get up. He picked up the cloth and stepped over her body with one leg. It appeared to me as he began to squat down that he intended to sit on the victim's stomach. He probably meant to hold the cloth over her face until she was unable to move.

As he was almost onto her stomach, I saw the flash of her right arm and hand. The driver jumped up and stumbled backwards against the wall of the truck. Although she had performed the move swiftly, she was apparently still too dazed to get up. I was amazed that she had been able to muster enough strength to punch him in the stomach and that the one punch had driven him back as it had. Perhaps she had just startled him.

As the driver leaned against the wall, I realized the victim hadn't merely punched him. His face contorted in great pain as he pulled a slender, bloody object from his stomach. At first, I thought it was a knife. I had been watching the driver as he disposed of the bike, but at this point I returned to that timeline and watched the victim as she lay on the truck's floor. She was wearing one of those small cases that strapped around the waist. Some people called it a fanny pack, and others referred to it as a waist pack. While some wore it with the pack at their back and others wore it with the pack on their side, the fourth victim was wearing it in the front, which seemed to be the preferred placement.

As the driver left the vehicle momentarily, she slipped her hand into the pack and withdrew a mean-looking nail file. It had a plastic handle and appeared to be about eight inches long, with most of the length allocated to the chromed file portion. The victim dropped her hand to her side and held the nail file close to her leg so the driver wouldn't see it. She may have been dazed, but she was still thinking clearly enough to strike back at what she probably believed to be a rapist. When the driver returned to complete the task of incapacitating her, she buried the nail file into his gut with all the force she could muster. At least five inches of chromed steel entered his body. It was a shame she hadn't managed to put it into his chest. An upward stoke just beneath the sternum could have pierced his heart. But it was amazing she was able to do what she had, given her dazed condition.

After withdrawing the nail file, the driver looked at the weapon in horror, then dropped it to the floor. As he rested against the wall for a few seconds, I saw the edges of his mouth curl downward. When he moved forward to where the victim was lying and I saw his right leg swing backwards, I knew his intent. I had read the autopsy. An instant later his leg swung forward and his foot impacted her head in a kick so vicious that her neck was broken.

The perp climbed back into the driver's seat after closing the door between the front and rear areas, then drove to the large garage where he was living. He had taken each of his victims there and then tortured them before ending their lives. Although the fourth victim was already deceased, he performed the same ritual on her, but not before he had seen to his wound. He cleaned the area where the nail file had entered his body and then wrapped a bandage made from a tee-shirt around his torso. I could tell from the grimace on his face that he was in great pain, but he couldn't go to a hospital without having to explain how the injury had occurred.

After completing the mutilation of the body, he wrapped it in a large garbage bag and used a small SUV that had been parked in the garage to drive it to his preferred dumping spot. Placing the body on the edge of a ravine, he kicked it as hard as he could. I saw him grimace in pain as the body rolled over the edge. He continued to grimace all the way back to his living quarters.

The garage where the perp had set up his operation appeared to have been built for commercial use as a warehouse or small manufacturing plant. It was located in a warehouse district where most of the warehouses had seen better days and were already empty and dilapidated. After each of the bodies had been disposed of, the perp had returned to his garage and cleaned up thoroughly. A high-pressure washer was used to scrub the interior of the van and the metal table where he mutilated the bodies of the women. All residue disappeared into a drain in the floor and then probably into a sewer. He was careful to clean everything and burn the women's clothes in a furnace. The only thing he saved was their ears. After performing some kind of process that I assumed was designed to preserve them, they were placed into glass baby food jars filled with a clear liquid, perhaps alcohol, then put into a small wooden box with a top that had an inlaid appearance. To this point, his 'collection' included four sets of ears.

Following his cleanup process with the third victim, he had made himself dinner and then gone to sleep after showering. On this occasion, however, he had taken out a paint sprayer and filled the paint container with a clear liquid. He donned a safety mask, then began spraying the entire truck. In minutes, the brown paint began to bubble up. The pressure washer was then used to clear most of the brown color from the vehicle. Beneath the brown color the truck was white, and the vehicle looked more like a laundry truck than a package delivery van when he was done.

After burning virtually everything that pointed to his occupancy of the building, he got into his small SUV and left. I assumed he was going to a hospital at that point and had wanted to make sure he hadn't left any evidence behind that pointed to his activity in the garage, so I was surprised when he drove onto the interstate highway.

The perp drove for almost five hours, ending up at a small cabin by a lake. He seemed barely able to walk as he exited the SUV. He first headed for a small shed and worked to start a generator. Once he managed to get it going, he stumbled to the house where he dug in the soft dirt next to a porch support pillar until he came up with a brass key protected in a plastic bag. As he reached the front door he fumbled with the key to unlock it. He seemed to be getting worse by the second and I wondered if he would even make it inside.

He finally managed to open the door, and as I followed him inside, I saw that the cabin was filthy. Moreover, it appeared that no one had been there in many months or perhaps several years, but the roof appeared intact and the interior dry. Solid wood shutters on the inside of every window were held closed by a steel bar that had a hinge on one side and a padlock on the other. The perp flipped on the light switch to illuminate a single bare bulb on the ceiling, slammed the door closed, and immediately headed for a small bed in the corner of the room. He barely made it before collapsing.

Once he was down, it seemed like he wouldn't be getting back up for a while, so I began jumping ahead an hour at a time. Over the next three days his condition seemed to worsen hourly. At times he would shake violently, as if he were cold.

After five days the perp seemed to fall into a deep sleep, but when he failed to move even the slightest bit after a full day, I moved the window in close to his face. That was when I noticed his eyes weren't completely closed. I watched for several minutes and he never blinked. I also never saw the slightest movement of his chest. I had no way to check his pulse, but it appeared to me he was dead. I smiled. No one had ever deserved a violent and painful death more than this monster had.

Thanks to the gizmo I knew everything that had happened and how it had happened. The perp was dead and presented no further danger to anyone. But I didn't have a clue to how I was going to explain how I knew what I did. I knew the first thing I had to do was identify the perp. So far all I had was a garage location and the location of the cabin where he died.

I began jumping ahead to learn when the perp's body had been found. I thought that with the remoteness of the cabin he could possibly lie there for a year before someone discovered him, but it actually only took three weeks. A boater, who I later learned happened to be a Neighborhood Watch member in his community, spotted the perp's SUV and came ashore to investigate since he couldn't remember having seen anyone at the cabin for years. He banged on the door several times before trying to open it. The generator had long since run out of fuel, so it was dark in the cabin, but the boater knew something was wrong as soon as he opened the door. The stench of the rotting corpse had to have been overpowering, and he pulled the door closed and coughed several times before vomiting as he bent over with his hands on his thighs. When he felt better, he walked around outside the cabin, trying to get a signal on his cell phone. He finally got a connection when he walked down to the lake.

The local sheriff didn't arrive for several hours. He opened the door fully and then, holding a handkerchief over his nose, used a rock to break the locks on the shutters protecting the windows. When all four windows were wide open, he hurried outside.

It was two more hours before a coroner's vehicle arrived to take the body away. I made a note of the date and time so I could check the county death records. That should give me the identity of the perp.

I still had no idea how I could report the perp was dead so the case could be closed without admitting to having the gizmo. I decided a road trip was in order. Perhaps actually seeing the crime locations in person might give me a clue as to how I could wrap this case up.

I had no desire to drive to the other side of the country, so I put the gizmo away and reconnected my computer to make airline reservations. As the computer completed the boot process, it notified me I had mail waiting. The airline reservations could wait. I was hoping to temporarily forget about the gruesome murders I had watched by stroking my ego with a few fan letters. But all that popped up was one of those emails from whoever knew I had the gizmo. I opened it and read, 'You've been warned repeatedly, Mr. James. There is little time left. Destroy the device before it destroys your life.'

Since the beginning, the emails had been telling me to destroy the gizmo before it destroyed me. But so far, all it had done was enrich my life beyond measure. Where I had been on the verge of surrendering my dream of becoming an author to take a job flipping burgers, I was now, to quote the media, a world famous art recovery expert. I had a seven-figure bank account, my love life had gone from zero to a hundred, and I had served my country by solving two 'unsolvable' cases. Three, if the new serial murderer case counted. Sure, I understood the danger represented by having the device and using it unwisely, but the benefits far outweighed the possible dangers. I was keeping it.

I completed my airline, hotel, and car reservations, then shut everything down and headed to the bedroom to get a little rest. I had been driving myself hard during the past few days and I needed to recharge my batteries.

I made the most of my weekend with Kathy and waited until Sunday to tell her I was going out of town on business because I knew what would happen when she learned. And it happened.

"What?" she said. "You're going out of town tomorrow? And you wait until the night before to tell me?"

"I didn't want you to worry," I said a second before I pushed the final forkful of crab-stuffed chicken breast into my mouth. I had thought she'd exhibit less angst if we were in a swanky restaurant on the East Side. It didn't work as well as I'd hoped, and most of the other patrons had turned to look at us.

She lowered her voice and said, "I thought there would be no more secrets between us?"

"What secrets? I just made the reservations Friday afternoon. That was two days ago. Are you busy for lunch tomorrow?"

"Yes. I'm going to lunch with the girls. We're having a small party for Marsha. She just got engaged."

"Why didn't you tell me?"

"Tell you what?"

"That you were going to a party on Monday."

"It's not— " She stopped mid-sentence because she understood what I was getting at. "That's different."


"It just is. Your work is dangerous."

"It's my job. Besides, the case is twelve years old. And I suspect the criminal is dead."

"Why would you think that?"

"It's a serial killer case. Those guys don't just suddenly stop. It's like pedophilia. Once they get a taste for the crime, they can't help themselves. They have to keep doing it until they get caught— or they're dead. In this case, I simply have to find out what happened to the perp so the case can be closed."

"You're sure he's dead?"

"Either dead or incarcerated for another crime."

"Where are you going?"

"Northern California."

"San Francisco?"


"I don't remember hearing about serial killings in Sacramento."

"This guy was just getting started when he suddenly stopped. That's why I think he's dead."

"When will you be back?"

"When I solve the case or give up."

"You never give up."

I smiled and said, "Is that a compliment?"

"An observation. You're tenacious."

"I'll take that as a compliment. And— you're right. I tend to keep working at things until I succeed. 'Never give up. Never surrender.'"

"Where have I heard that before?"

"It was the slogan in a sci-fi movie parody a few years ago."

"Oh, yeah."

"Ready for dessert?" I asked.

"If it's tiramisu."

"I think I saw raspberry tiramisu on the menu."

"That sounds wonderful."

It was.

I arrived in California at dinnertime so there was nothing I could do the first day. Compared to New York, the weather was practically balmy, although the locals were bundled up like Eskimos. I checked into my hotel and then went out to find a restaurant where I could get dinner. After returning to my hotel, I checked my email and worked for a short time on a new story I'd been thinking about for several days. Flying always wore me out for some reason and I felt exhausted, so I went to bed early and got a good night's rest.

I checked in with local law enforcement the next morning so they'd know I was working the case and was asked to wait until the Sheriff was free because he wanted to speak with me. I was escorted to an area outside his office and offered a cup of coffee by his secretary while I waited for the Sheriff's other visitors to conclude their business.

Sheriff Beronson was a friendly man. He told me he had worked the investigation of the first two disappearances when they were classified as missing person cases. After the bodies had been found and they understood they had a serial killer on the loose in the county, the Bureau had been called in to assume main responsibility for coordinating the law enforcement effort. Since I didn't know how I was going to explain my knowledge of the perpetrator to Brigman, I cordially pumped Beronson for everything he knew. He talked freely. I think it made him feel more important. I'd heard that local law enforcement officials were sometimes left out of the loop once the FBI showed up, but as I now knew from personal experience, that wasn't the case. The FBI always worked with all other law enforcement personnel in a team effort. Plus, I wanted Beronson on my side.

In all, I spent over an hour at the sheriff's office. When I got up to leave, I said, "Thank you for your information and insights, Sheriff. It always helps to get a personal perspective from someone who was on the scene. It often gives you a different slant on the crime."

"I'm happy to help, Special Agent James. If this guy is still out there, we want him caught. We also want him to pay for the heinous acts he committed. You're welcome here anytime if I can be of further assistance."

"Thank you, Sheriff. I'm sure I'll be calling on you again as I perform my investigation."

Since I had seen each of the acts committed, the information I received from the sheriff didn't add to what I knew of the crime, but he had provided an interesting perspective.

After leaving the sheriff's office I drove over to the scene of the first abduction. The mall, which had appeared pristine in the gizmo images, had seen better days. Twelve years often had a noticeable impact on commercial property as shopping trends changed and prime tenants either went out of business or moved to better locations.

I found the parking spot where the victim's car had been found and made a pretense of checking out all viewing angles of the parking lot and buildings from that location in case someone was watching.

Over the next several hours, I visited the other three abduction locations and even checked out the embankment over which the perp had thrown the bicycle. Residential housing near the fourth location had built up quite a bit during the past twelve years, and it would have been considerably more difficult to perform the same kind of abduction at that point without someone noticing something. I didn't really learn anything else new at any of the scenes, but I hadn't expected to.

Returning to the sheriff's office, I asked if I could get access to the county's database regarding filed complaints. I was directed to a female detective who would help me.

"Hello, Detective Lasker," I said by way of introduction to S. Lasker after reading her name off the plate on her desk. "I'm Colton James of the FBI."

"Yes, I know. The Sheriff has told us to assist you with any reasonable request."

"Wonderful. I'd like to know if there were any citizen complaints, either phoned in or filed, about delivery vehicles between these two dates." I handed her a piece of paper that listed the two dates I knew the perp had been operating in the area.

After glancing at the paper she said, "Does this have to do with the serial killer investigation?"


She nodded and said, "This requested search is pretty general. Can you be more specific with the parameters?"

"How about if we limit it initially to a search based on complaints about FedEx, DHL, UPS, and USPS vehicles?"

"That's better. The other way we'd get everything, including restaurant, market, furniture, florist, and department store vehicle complaints."

"What do you estimate for time?"

"Unless you get a priority from the Sheriff, it'll probably take about an hour to search the city and county databases."

"That's fine. Thank you. I'll stop back after I run another errand."

I headed to the county assessor's office next to check on the ownership of the garage building the perp had used as his base of operations. The files in the assessor's office were self-serve. I learned that the garage had been owned by the same person for the past twenty-two years. There were no liens on the property or judgments against it. It had originally been constructed to serve as the primary business location of a small metal ductwork fabrication company. I made photocopies of the records I accessed.

When I returned to the sheriff's office, the search had finished and Detective Lasker had printed it out for me. It was longer than I'd expected.

"You think the serial killer might have been working for one of the delivery services?" she asked as she handed it over.

"I'm trying to look at all the possibilities. This is one of my theories."

"Sounds like a good one."

"Thanks. Were you on the force back then?"

"Yeah. I was a patrol officer. I was never involved in that investigation, but I remember the case. We were all driving around like our heads were on swivels, looking for anything out of the ordinary. I hope you find the bastard."

"Thanks. I promise I'll do my best to see that he doesn't escape justice. And thanks for the search."

It was a great day outside, so I sat in my rental car and went through the entire list. I had gotten lucky. There were several complaints from a local mechanic who had seen the delivery van either entering or exiting the garage building the perp had used as his headquarters. Since delivery vehicles almost never enter a building, he assumed the vehicles were being serviced in there. He complained to the city three times because no one had been issued a business permit to work on trucks at that location. It appeared from the listing that no one from licensing had ever followed up. The record gave me an excuse to contact the owner of the building.

"Mr. Cappalota?" I asked, as an older gentlemen answered the door at the address I'd gotten from the assessor's office.

"That's me," he said through the screen door. "What can I do for you?"

I held up my ID and said, "I'm Colton James of the FBI. May I ask you a few questions?"

He seemed to stiffen a bit before asking, "What's this about?"

"I'm working on an old case, and we're trying to tie up some loose ends so we can close the file."

"What's that got to do with me?"

"It's about the building you own on Magorim Street."

"What about it?"

"We're trying to locate one of your past tenants."

"I don't keep track of past tenants. When our business is concluded, we part company."

"I'm hoping you can give me the name and legal address of a tenant at the time he was leasing the building."

Cappalota sighed and pushed the screen door open gently. "Come on in. I'll have to check my records."

I followed him through the house and into his study. The décor of the house would probably best be described as mid-century, so I half expected him to pull a dusty old ledger out of a file cabinet and hunt through yellowed pages for the information. But as he stepped behind his desk, he raised the cover on a fairly new laptop. When the computer finished its boot process, he began using the mouse to find the file. Finally, he asked for the date of the lease. I gave him the month and year of the first abduction and he began scanning a spreadsheet file. When he found what he was looking for, he clicked a button on the mouse and the printer behind him came to life. A few seconds later it spit out a sheet of paper. He glanced at it and then handed it to me.

The paper contained all the basic information of the lease and everything I needed to establish the identity of the perp. "This isn't a local address," I said, referring to the tenant's mailing address.

"I always take the address from the tenant's driver's license, unless he has legal papers of incorporation. In that case I use the address on the corporate papers."

"I see. Mr. Cappalota, how many times did this individual renew his lease?"

He checked the file and said, "The lease was never renewed. He only took it for one year. Paid the entire year in advance, plus a security deposit. Never had that happen before— or since."

"And when the lease was up, was the building fully vacated?"

"No, he left a lot of junk there. My lawyer went through the legal process that declared it as abandoned property."

"Is that normal? Do you have to go through the legal process for everything that's left behind in a property?"

"No, most tenants take everything of value with them. In this case, however, the tenant left a motor vehicle behind."

"And what happened to that?"

"After the legal process was finalized, the truck was purchased by a used truck dealer. I didn't get a lot of money, but it covered most of my costs for the attorney and the cost to have the place cleaned out."

"And what happened to the rest of the tenant's possessions left behind?"

"A junk dealer came and took everything. It was all legal. It was abandoned property."

"I'm sure you did everything required under the law, sir. I'm not here to challenge anything. My interest is limited solely to the tenant and his former property. Since you went through a legal process to change ownership of the vehicle, can you provide me with the VIN?"

Cappalota stood up and went to a file cabinet where he began looking through file folders. He found the one he was searching for and pulled out a sheet of paper. Walking to his printer, he lifted the top cover and placed the paper face down, then tapped a few buttons and it made a photocopy of the document. As it spit the copy out, he looked at it, then turned it over to me.

"Thank you, sir. You've been very helpful."

"Is that all?"

"Just one more thing. Could you give me the name of the junk dealer who cleaned out the building?"

Cappalota took a small piece of notepaper and scrawled a name and address. As he handed it to me, he said, "The guy I dealt with back then died about six years ago. His son runs the place now."

I thanked Mr. Cappalota and left. I wondered if Cappalota would immediately call the junk dealer, but it really didn't matter since I could confirm his actions and any resulting actions on the part of the junk dealer using the gizmo.

The junkyard was open, and as soon as I showed my ID to the person behind the counter he called his boss.

"Mr. Semmer?" I said when the man came out from a rear office.

"I'm Semmer. What do you need?"

"A few minutes of your time." Looking over at the counter person, I added, "In private."

"Follow me," Semmer said, gesturing to the rear of the store.

I followed him to a locked storeroom that had tables full of 'collectable' items but no place to sit down. The walls of the room were lined with shelves that also overflowed with— junk. But as everyone knew, one man's junk was another man's treasure. The value of 'collectables' had been rising steadily for decades and the term 'junk' had taken on new meaning.

"Okay, this is private. No one can overhear us. What do you want?"

"Your father cleaned out a building at Magorim Street about twelve years ago. Do you still have the contents?"

Semmer laughed. "Twelve years ago? You've got to be kidding. Most of that stuff would have been gone within thirty days."

"Most? What's left?"

"I have no idea. We don't keep records detailing the contents when we clean out a building. A lot of the stuff gets recycled almost immediately."

"The items I'm looking for would not have been recycled."

Semmer grinned. "I wasn't even here back then. I was in college. I have no idea what he might have saved from that location. Look around. I doubt if I could tell you where one percent of this stuff came from."

"The items I'm looking for are quite unique. I think you'd know if you had them."

"What do you mean by 'unique.'"

"Items of a very personal nature."


"Body parts."

Semmer's face turned solemn. "Are you serious? You think I'm hiding dead bodies?"

"No. I'm not searching for bodies. I'm looking for— appendages."

Semmer breathed deeply and then said, "Suppose I knew of something. How much trouble would I be in?"

Chapter Fourteen

"None at all," I said, "unless it's evidence in a criminal case and you fail to turn it over to authorities after becoming aware that it's being sought."

Semmer breathed deeply again. "I swear I had no knowledge that you might be looking for something like this, and I don't even know where it came from."

"Where what came from?"

"I'll show you."

Semmer led me to a locked supply closet at the back of the room. After unlocking the cabinet and opening the doors, he took a small cardboard box off the shelf.

"Here," Semmer said, holding the box out to me.

Upon opening the box, I saw a shrunken head, or at least what looked like a real shrunken head. It was ancient and might have been a relic from one of those places where shrinking heads was a ritualistic practice hundreds or thousands of years ago.

"This is interesting, but unless it was stolen from a museum or private collection, it's not illegal to possess."

"That isn't what you're looking for?"


"Well, I have two other things."

The first item turned out to be a human penis in a jar of clear liquid that I assumed was alcohol to preserve it.

"Uh, that's not it either."

"Okay, he said, putting the jar with the penis back into the cabinet. I have one last thing."

Pulling a small wooden box off a shelf, he handed it to me. When I opened it, I saw four small baby food jars, each containing a pair of ears.

"Yes, these are what I've been looking for. They're evidence in a murder investigation, so I'll have to confiscate them. I'll give you a receipt, but I doubt you'll ever be able to get them back."

The day had been far more productive than I could have dreamed possible when I'd stepped off the plane the day before. Of course, I'd had the advantage of knowing exactly what I was looking for at all times, so it was merely a matter of tracking it down. And I'd been very lucky that the evidence I'd collected would enable me to explain how I was able to close the case. The only chore left was to visit the county where the cabin was located and get a copy of the perp's death certificate. That probably wasn't even necessary because I'd been able to verify the death electronically from state records, but I wanted to get a copy of the autopsy to include with my report.

I left the next morning and enjoyed the ride north. It was a beautiful sunny day and the temperature was well above normal, hovering around seventy-one degrees. The hours flew by as I enjoyed the scenery in an area I'd never visited. It was hard to suppress thoughts of my parents. When they had died in the highway accident, they had been traveling not far from where I was headed. I worked to put that unpleasantness out of my mind. I had no desire to see where the accident happened. I had learned everything about the accident I wanted to know by using the gizmo. I preferred to remember the wonderful times we'd enjoyed when I was growing up. And the best part was that I could see them again anytime I wished. It was better than having old 8mm movies.

I stopped at the county offices first to get a copy of the autopsy report from the county coroner. It took awhile for them to dig out the file, then photocopy every page, but I left with the last piece of hard evidence I needed for Brigman. The autopsy showed that the perp had died from a wound to the abdomen caused by a sharp instrument like a stiletto-style knife. I wished I could produce the nail file so the fourth victim could be credited properly with ending the murder spree of that monster, but the trail was too old. Or was it?

The cabin was occupied when I arrived, and I spoke to the man I found there. He said he had purchased the property at auction after the previous owner failed to pay the property taxes. He was concerned that something involving the FBI might affect his ownership rights and wanted to know what I was investigating. I told him I couldn't discuss the case but that I didn't think his property rights were in danger.

After thanking him for his time, I walked around the lot and then down to the lake. It was a beautiful location. I would have loved to have something like that myself for vacations, but it was only a pipe dream. I had been a city person most of my adult life, and I didn't know if I could ever be comfortable in the land of crickets and mosquitoes.

After arriving back at my hotel room, I took out the gizmo and went to the last abduction. I tagged the nail file and then zoomed to the present. I was surprised to discover that the nail file was still in the garage on Magorim Street. That didn't seem possible, but the gizmo had never been wrong. I zoomed in on its location, but it was pitch black. I slowly pulled back, but it remained black. So I moved the image left and right, but still the light level never changed. Finally, I raised the window and kept raising it until an image resolved. I had to laugh. The nail file was down in the drain on the garage floor. It must have wound up there when the perp used the pressure washer on the interior of the van. I didn't know if its condition would allow it to be used as evidence, but at least I knew where it was. As I turned the window to look around, I saw that the current tenant was a sign company. It appeared that their main business was producing those paper signs used in grocery store windows to promote specials. The drain had been so dark because the cover grill appeared to be packed with dirt. That was good. The drain might be dry and rust on the chrome nail file might be at a minimum. It was a pretty sure bet the plastic handle would be intact.

I spent the next few hours writing up my report and sending it off to the Bureau before I went to bed. I had enjoyed the sojourn and the more pleasant weather, but I was looking forward to going home. Although I had only been gone a few days, I missed Kathy. I had spoken with her twice since arriving in California, but it sure wasn't the same as being able to hold her.

Before I left, I stopped in to visit Sheriff Beronson and thank him for his cooperation and assistance in helping me solve the case and identify the killer.

"You solved the case? Already?"

"I believe so. I can't comment officially until my superiors review my report and make a determination. If they agree with my findings, you'll receive a copy of the report."

"You can't tell me anything?"

I hesitated for a couple of seconds, then said, "This is off the record. Thanks to the information Detective Lasker provided, I was able to develop a lead in the case. I believe the killer is dead, so there's no more worry that he'll kill again. Justice has been served."

"Who was it?"

"Someone from out of town." I gave the Sheriff the perp's name.

"Never heard of him."

"I sent my report to the Bureau last evening. If they accept my findings and they become part of the case file, the case will be closed and you'll be sent a copy of the report."

"You're sure the killer is dead?"

"Yes. I suspect the fourth victim was responsible."


"Because he died of a stab wound to the belly a week after he killed her. But don't spread that around until my superiors rule on my report."

"Knowing that one of his victims might have done him in makes me feel a hell of a lot better."

"I feel the same. Thanks again, Sheriff."

"Come back anytime, Special Agent James."

I hadn't been home more than a few hours when I received a call informing me I was expected to be at Brigman's office at nine on Monday morning. Since I had completed my report, I would be able to spend the weekend with Kathy. We had made plans to attend a new play and then finish up the night at her place.

Monday morning found me polishing the seat of my pants outside Brigman's office. The weekend had been wonderful, so I was feeling pretty mellow and sat there patiently until I was called.

The same three people I had met on previous occasions were in the office with Brigman. Since we had never been introduced and I was so rarely at the office, I still had no idea who they were. I decided to look into it the next time I used the gizmo. Brigman started off the conversation in the manner I expected.

"You really think you solved a twelve year old serial killer case is less than two weeks?" he asked in his usual gruff voice.

"I had the benefit of all the work done before me by excellent investigators. I didn’t have to cover old ground. I just had to look at things they hadn't."

"And just how did you develop this startling theory, James?"

"Not one single witness to any of the abductions had come forth. If we were talking about abductions in the prairie areas of Montana or even the desert areas of Arizona, a lack of witnesses would be understandable. But having no witnesses to midday abductions in heavily populated areas of California was illogical. The perp would have to be invisible, so I looked at situations that would make him invisible. The previous investigators had eliminated many possibilities, so I concentrated on the few that were left."

"Why did you choose to concentrate on package delivery vehicles?" the lone woman in the room asked. "What about floral delivery, for example?"

"There are so many package delivery vehicles on the road during midday that they're more invisible than other types. The original investigation had included all legitimate package delivery drivers but didn't check for fraudulent drivers in look-alike vans. In fact, the greatest danger to the perp's invisibility would have been if another vehicle for the same company had spotted him. These folks cover a large territory, but they work out of a single distribution location and know each other. They would have known something was wrong if they didn't recognize a driver who supposedly worked for their company. Since most of these services have scheduled routes, I suppose the perp followed the trucks in the areas where he planned to strike so he could learn their routes and times. If I hadn't found the right connection on the first try, I would have moved on and investigated other delivery vehicles."

"You say in your report that you located body parts at the junk dealer's location and believe they were from the victims but that it was still speculation," Brigman asked. "Where are those body parts now?"

"Right here," I said as I opened the brown paper bag I had brought with me, lifted the small wooden box out, and placed it on Brigman's desk.

"That should have been sent to the lab," he growled.

"I just arrived back this weekend. Today is the first time I've been at headquarters."

Brigman glared at me and leaned over to lift the box's cover, then lifted one of the glass jars out. "Ears?"

"The case file states that the ears of all four victims were missing, but that fact was never reported to the media. When I saw these, I assumed they were from the victims."

"If the DNA matches, I guess this case is closed," one of the other men said.

"I'd like the Bureau to do one more thing," I said. "I'd like the floor drain pipes in the garage building on Magorim Street to be removed and the contents analyzed."

"Why?" Brigman asked.

"I suspect there may be evidence there. One of the items collected by the junk dealer when the property was cleaned out was a high pressure washer. I believe the perp may have used it to clean out his truck after each abduction. There could be additional evidence in the drain, such as hair, earrings, or small personal items."

"We'll take it under advisement," Brigman said. "Have you made any progress on the other assigned case?"

"No, sir. I believed the serial killer case had a higher priority."

"Well then get busy on the other case, James. That's all."

I knew that nothing I ever did would be good enough for Brigman. I had now solved three cold cases and he was still treating me like a rookie who didn't have the good sense to tie his own shoelaces. I stood up and left the office without a word.

When I arrived back home, I grabbed a beer from the fridge and downed it in practically one gulp. It was still morning, and I rarely drank before noon, but I was still fuming over my treatment by Brigman. I took a second bottle from the fridge and sat down at my kitchen table to think. I knew that if Brigman didn't lighten up, I would wind up tossing my gun and badge on his desk one day. And that day might not be too far ahead.

As I unscrewed the top from the second bottle of Bud, there was a knock at my door. Since the unidentified caller was already inside the building, it had to be either my landlord or another tenant. I went to the door and pulled it open. I was wrong. It was Billy Boyles. I had given him a key before I went to Quantico, and he was still dropping by to check on my apartment whenever I was away.

"You're home," he said.

"Yeah. How come you knocked?"

"If you were home I didn't want barge in on you. If you hadn't come to the door, I would have come in to check on things." Seeing the beer in my hand, he asked, "Got another one of those? I need it."

"Help yourself. You know where it is."

Billy took his winter coat off as he followed me into the kitchen, hung the coat on the back of a chair, and grabbed a beer for himself, then joined me at the table.

"Rough night?" I asked after seeing Billy's bloodshot eyes.

"Yeah. The roughest. That's why I didn't make it in to work today. I met this girl downtown yesterday. She says she works on Wall Street, but I swear she was a rodeo bronco buster in a former life. She rode me all night, never tired, and kept begging for more."

"Sounds like you've found a soul mate," I joked.

"I don't know if I can handle her. She wore me out, man. I mean totally wore me out. Nobody's ever done that before. She wanted to come over to my place again tonight, but I told her I needed a full day to recover, so we're getting together tomorrow instead."

"I'm happy for you, pal."

Thanks. So what's up with you? This last trip was really short."

"I managed to wrap up everything quickly."

"You solved a decade old serial killer case in a week? You are getting good."

"Just lucky."

"So what are you going to do now— writing, artwork recovery, skip tracing, or just relax? Or are you going to do that brokering thing again? You promised to explain that to me once, but you never did."

"I know. I'm sorry. I'd like to tell you, but I can't."

"Why not?"

"It's— complicated."

"I'm not stupid."

"I know. It's not that."

"Then what?"

"It's— dangerous."

"Can't be any more dangerous than driving a cab in Manhattan."

"Yes, it can."

"Okay." Billy said with a note of finality. "Well, I guess I should be going. You probably have a lot to do."

Billy drained his beer and stood to leave. I could tell he was upset because I wouldn't share something I had once promised to tell him. I'd never seen him like this. I didn't want to put him in danger, but I didn't want to lose my best friend either.

"Billy, sit down," I said calmly.

He stopped pulling on his coat but just stood there looking at me expectantly.

"Okay, I'll tell you."

He smiled, then took his coat off and hung it on the back of his chair again before sitting down.

"Before I tell you anything about this, I have to emphasize how dangerous it is. You can't tell anyone else. I haven't even told Kathy because it could place her life in danger. I'm not joking when I say that people would kill to acquire something that has come into my possession. Are you sure you want take that risk?"

"Are you kidding?" Billy asked as he got up to retrieve another beer. "After that buildup?"

"I'm not trying to tempt you. I'm trying to convince you that it's best if you never know anything about the— thing."

"If you're trying to convince me to back out, you should stop building the suspense."

I knew I wasn't going to convince him to back out, but I had to try, and he had to know that I had tried. I had swept the apartment for bugs after returning from California, so I just had to hope nothing had been planted while I was downtown at the Bureau. "Okay, here it is." I reached into my pocket and retrieved the matchbox as Billy took a swig from his newly opened beer. When I had withdrawn the gizmo and placed it on the table, it sprang open and all crease lines immediately disappeared. This activity wasn't lost on Billy, and he stopped sucking on his beer.

"Wow," Billy said. "How did you do that?"

"It's a new kind of paper. You've seen it before. It was on my wall when you were here in April. Remember?" I picked up the gizmo and put it against the wall where it had been when Billy had visited.

"Oh yeah. You said you were conducting some kind of static electricity experiment or something."

"That's right. I hadn't yet discovered its real secret back then. Watch this." As I touched the corner of the device, it illuminated and an image resolved.

"Whoa!" Billy exclaimed excitedly. "That is so cool! I've seen flat screen televisions, but I haven't seen anything like this. Is this what you're brokering? Who with? The Japs? This deal must be worth plenty."

"This isn't a television, Billy."

Looking at me, then glancing back at the device, Billy said, "Whadda ya mean it's not a television? They got some new name for it?"

"I mean you're not watching a television broadcast. This is a monitor and you're looking at a live image of California. It's the last thing I tuned in."

Billy was staring at the image. "I thought the action was a little slow for TV or a movie. Is this from one of those web cams like we have sprinkled all over town?"

"No, there's no camera involved. No broadcast. I just tell it whatever I want to look at, and it shows me the image."

"Yeah, right!" Billy said, grinning.

"I was just as skeptical at first. Here, let me adjust it for you." I reached over and set the coordinates for my kitchen.

Suddenly Billy was staring at an image of himself. "It's like a mirror," he said, turning his head from side to side.

"It's not a mirror. Can a mirror do this?" I adjusted the coordinates on the device so it was showing the back of Billy's head.

"Kewl. Is that my head? I guess I'm starting to get a little thin on top."

"Billy! Don't you get it? There's no camera behind you."

Billy grinned and turned around. He scanned the cabinets before saying nonchalantly, "Dude, you can't pull that on me. I just can't spot it. Some of those things have pinhole lenses on them now. I saw this show on TV where they operated on this dude's knee, from the inside, using a fiber-optic camera that was pushed into the leg through a hole smaller than the tip of a pencil. You're just trying to put one over on me. Where can I buy one of these things? It's great."

"You still don't get it," I said with a bit of exasperation. "Okay, explain this." I took a small notebook down from the shelf over the sink and flipped through its pages. I had once maintained a record of all important events I'd watched. I selected the Battle of Hastings, a particularly bloody and gruesome battle fought in medieval England, and entered the coordinates and date. The battle was raging as the gizmo locked into the location.

"Wow!" Billy exclaimed as the crystal-clear image resolved. "Is that the Mel Gibson movie?"

"No, Billy," I said, becoming even more exasperated. "This is a battle in medieval England. The people you see being killed and maimed are really being killed or maimed as you watch."

"Get outta town. Even I know they didn't have cameras back then. This has to be a reenactment, like those revolutionary war and civil war things."

"Look closely. Let me move the gizmo in."

Billy watched as the grisly battle raged on. "This is the best f/x work I've ever seen. It looks so real."

"It is real, Billy. This gizmo can look back at any time or place. I've watched Columbus as he discovered America, seen the Declaration of Independence being signed, and watched the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. I've spent days watching the greatest moments in history, and the worst, as they occurred. Don't you understand what I'm telling you?"

Billy sometimes liked to play the role of dummy when he drove his cab. He'd once told me it let him avoid playing tour guide to out-of-towners. I had learned just how sharp he was the first time I got into his cab and we began talking sports. But now he just stared at me with that silly expression he often wore.

Several seconds passed before Billy moved. He turned back to the monitor and stared intently without saying anything for several more seconds. "You're saying this is real? I mean really real?"

"Really real," I said, nodding affirmatively. "I'm not lying."

As the reality of the action sunk in, I saw his expression go sour and his facial color change slightly. He suddenly pushed his chair back and jumped to the sink, his cheeks bulging. The image on the gizmo was of a man having his head hacked off his shoulders with a battle axe. Billy just barely made it to the sink in time to deposit the contents of his stomach there. As he came up for air, I handed him a wad of paper towels and turned on the tap water to flush the contents.

Billy spit into the sink a few more times, wiped his mouth with the paper towels, and said, "That was real. Hollywood is good, but not that good. Turn that thing off, bro. It's making me sick to see people really doing that stuff to other people."

I turned off the gizmo. "I was almost sick myself a few times. Hollywood has done a great job of desensitizing us to extreme violence because we know it's not real. It's all computer graphics and special effects out there. But when you realize that what you're watching is real, and that real people are dying and being mutilated, it's a different matter entirely. Even so I became desensitized to it quickly when I remembered that all those people died many hundreds of years ago and their bodies have already turned to dust. I've watched tens, maybe hundreds of thousands die in natural disasters and wars. After a while you can maintain almost a clinical detachment."

"What is that thing?" Billy asked with a frightened look on his face. "Where did you get it? Who made it? And I know you ain't brokering any deal to sell it."

"I think of it as a window in time. You can see anything that's happened, any place in the world. I don't understand it, but you can use GPS to find any location, even though GPS didn't exist even fifty years ago. I guess it finds the location first, and then goes to the date requested. And no, I'm not brokering any deal to sell it. The fact is you're one of only a select few who even know I have it. I've been afraid to tell anyone, and you can't tell anyone else about this."

"Whadda ya mean? You're sitting on a goldmine."

"Think about it, Billy. With this device I can learn anybody's secrets. I can uncover murderers, thieves, rapists, molesters, and criminals of all sorts. I can even learn the deepest secrets of our government and governments around the world. If people learn that I have it, they'll try to take it away from me and won't stop until I'm dead. If they find out that you know about it, your life won't be worth any more than mine."

"My life?"

"Sure, they couldn't be sure you haven't already learned their secrets and made recorded copies from the device."

"But I'm not involved in this."

"You became involved when you learned the function of the gizmo."

"Good God, Colt!" Billy spit out. "I thought you were my friend. How could you do this to me?"

Chapter Fifteen

"How could I? How could I not? You demanded to know, Billy. But don't worry, as long as you never mention it, no one will ever find out. You'll be safe."

"Where did you get this thing?"

"I found it— the day the building across the street exploded. I had a box of photocopies in my car, and they were missing when I located my wreck. I found them scattered around the street outside the car, so I scooped them up and brought them upstairs. The gizmo was mixed in with them."

"You said I'm one of only a few who know about it. Who else knows?"

"I needed to learn where it came from, so I recently confided in a scientist I know. He was just as blown away as you and I are and had no idea about the device's origins. But I'm worried he might tell someone even though I warned him in advance that he could never tell anyone and repeated that before I left. I've told no one else, but somebody knows. Even before I knew I had it, I started getting weird emails from someone demanding that I destroy it."

"Have you tracked the return address?"

"I've tried, but there is no address. The emails just appear in my computer. I have no idea how they've done that."

"Anybody smart enough to create something like this is probably smart enough to avoid being traced."

"Yeah. At first I expected someone to show up at my door. I still worry about that. Every time I hear a sound in the middle of the night, I'm up at the window or the door with my service weapon. But so far, nothing."

"And your sudden prosperity came from using the— window?"

"Uh, yeah. I began by tracking down criminals for bail bondsmen. That led to the art recovery work."

"Did you consider tracking down the FBI's Ten Most Wanted? They offer really serious coin for those guys."

"I thought of that but decided against it. The last thing I wanted to do was get involved with the Feds. They'd want to know how I located the people they couldn't find, and things could have gotten even more complicated real quick if they started watching me. That's one of the reasons I agreed to work for them. I figured it was better to be on the inside than the outside."

A strange expression suddenly crossed Billy's face. "As long as I'm risking life and limb just knowing about this device, can I use it?"

"Sure," Colt said, "what do you want to see?"

"I want to see tomorrow's winners at the track."

I grinned. "No can do, pal. We can't see the future. We can see the present and the past only. I don't know why, unless it's intended to prevent anyone from altering the future. Or it might simply be that, in this reality, the future hasn't occurred yet."

"This reality?"

"Yeah. It's really complicated, but some folks believe there are an infinite number of realities."

"Wow. Bummer about the track though."

"Yeah, I was hoping to find the lottery numbers when I first realized what this machine could do, but it won't let me see even one second into the future."

"But it lets you see anything in the present or past."




"Show me how to use it."

I spent ten minutes showing Billy how to operate the gizmo. As I've said, he's a lot sharper than he looks or acts.

"Got it?" I asked after I finished explaining how it works.

"Yeah. Got it. Can I use it now?"

"Sure. Go for it. I'm going to take a nap. It's been a busy morning."

When I returned to the kitchen six hours later, Billy was still absorbed with the gizmo. I understood that completely. Of course, we had different priorities. Billy was busy looking at the Rockettes in their dressing room as they prepared for a performance. I had to laugh.

"What? You never used the gizmo to look at naked babes?"

"Only my mom," I said.

"Ugh!" he said, his face showing disgust.

"I watched my own birth. That's all."

"Oh. Hey, I never thought of that. I'm gonna watch mine— after the Rockettes finish dressing."

I smiled, then turned to put some water on for pasta. "Hungry?" I asked.

"Yeah. I haven't eaten since breakfast, and that was only a bagel."

"Okay, dinner will be ready in fifteen minutes."

After dinner, Billy wanted to use the gizmo some more, so I took my laptop into the living room to work.

It was approaching midnight when I finished what I was doing and turned off my laptop. Billy was still rooted in front of the gizmo. This time he was watching the models get dressed at a Victoria's Secret event. One thing about Billy was his consistency. Another was his libido. When I asked him if he was almost finished, he didn't even respond. I peered around him and saw that his eyes were open and he seemed alert, so I shrugged and went to bed. He had a key and could let himself out when he got tired, or he could sack out on the living room sofa.

When I rose in the morning, Billy was still at the kitchen table— asleep. I reached across him and turned off the gizmo, which was showing an empty Broadway dressing room in 1964. I didn't bother to record the location or time; I simply put the gizmo into its matchbox and pushed it into my pocket.

Billy woke up when I started cooking some eggs. "Smells great, dude. Make mine over easy."

"You want them now or do you want to shower first?"

"Food first, shower later."

"Okay, two over easy coming up."

"Got enough for four? I'm starving."

"Four over easy coming up. Toast?"

"Yeah, light with butter."

"Home fries?"

"The more the better."


"Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah."

"Okay, the coffee's started. It'll be ready in a few minutes."

As Billy dug into his breakfast, he sighed. "Oh, dude. This is great. Will you marry me?"

"I'm taken already. Maybe your bronco-busting rodeo star is a good cook."

"She told me she burns water."

"Oh. Well, so much for that relationship. If neither of you can cook, you'll both starve to death."

"Not in Manhattan. Not while there's takeout."

"Well, maybe not. Are you going in to work today?"

"Yeah, I have to, but I'd way rather go back to sleep."

"How late did you stay up watching naked bodies?"

"The last time I looked at the clock, it said four twenty-three."

"You'll be lucky to complete your shift."

"No problemo. I'll grab a few winks here and there. What about you?"

"I'm great. I got six hours yesterday afternoon and another six overnight."

"No, I mean what are you going to do now?"

"I think I'm going to Amsterdam."

"You mean up by Albany?"

"No, the Netherlands. I told you about the call I got a couple of weeks ago. A museum was hit there. They lost twelve pieces. They'll cover all my travel expenses just to come take a look. The local police, national cops, and Interpol have exhausted all leads and are at a dead end. The Swiss insurance company wants me to come take a look before they have to pay up in four months. If I solve the case and recover everything, I get three million eight Euros."

"What's that in real money?"

"Euros are real money."

"You know what I mean."

"I think it's a bit over five million US."

"Five mil? Holy shit. What are you still doing here?"

"I'm a little hesitant. I've never done anything outside the U.S. before. I don't know the language, the customs, or the legal system."

"One way to learn, man."

I thought all day about taking on the job in Europe. The idea of trying to solve a crime in a country I didn't know, with customs I didn't know, among people speaking a language I didn't know was daunting. I'd heard that most Europeans were friendly and multilingual, and that English speakers were common, so not knowing how their legal system worked caused me the greatest apprehension. I finally decided that Billy was right, and that going there, at least for a look-see, was the best way to learn.

However, before I made the final decision on the European theft, I wanted to take a look at the robbery. I punched in the date, approximate time, and building coordinates and sat down in front of the gizmo to watch. The thieves hadn't shown up when the microwave beeped at me, so I got up and retrieved my food and a bottle of cold beer.

I was halfway through my dinner when I spotted a shadow on the wall that I assumed was from one of the perps. I swung the image around and saw someone climbing down a rope from an open skylight. I was pretty sure it wasn't a museum security person.

Rather than let my dinner get cold, I stopped playing with the monitor and finished my meal. After I had cleaned up and sealed the food containers tightly in a plastic garbage bag, I was ready to finish my viewing. I grabbed another beer from the fridge and sat down at the table to work.

I had just reset the time and moved the image outside the museum to see where the perp had come from and how he or she had gotten onto the roof when the phone rang. It was Kathy.

"Colt, where are you?"

"I'm home, sweetheart. You just called me here."

"Well, you're supposed to be here."


"The awards dinner. Did you forget?"

"I thought that was next week."

"It's tonight. Now. Or at least soon."

"Are you there?"

"Yes. I'm with Didi from work and her boyfriend Michael."

"Okay, sweetheart. I'll get there as quickly as I can. Hold my seat."


"Sorry. Just trying to lighten the mood."

"Just get here."

"I'm practically on my way. I love you."

I heard a click, then silence. I knew she was angry, and I didn't look forward to spending the evening with an upset, pouting girlfriend, but not going would be the worst thing I could do, so I folded the monitor and stuffed it into the matchbox, then ran for the shower. I was out of my apartment in just twenty minutes, glad my hair was short or I would have been dripping all the way to the awards dinner.

I didn't have a chance to get back to the robbery until the next afternoon because I spent the night with Kathy. She knew she had behaved badly by hanging up on me, and once she cooled down she was anxious to make up for it. Did I say she cooled down? I should have said that her anger cooled. But her ardor had reached record highs by the time I got her home. It was a night I would never forget— not that I wanted to.

As I resumed my investigation of the robbery, I was mesmerized by the efficiency of the five art thieves. These were no amateurs like the women in Philadelphia or thugs like the smash-and-grab brutes who pulled the job in Boston. They were in and out in less than ten minutes after just three minutes spent disabling the alarm. And I didn't miss the sixth member of the group. He stood in the shadows near the getaway van, holding what looked like a Mini Uzi. I had had range practice with one during my training at Quantico and knew they usually held a twenty-five-round clip. These were definitely the most dangerous people of all those I'd come up against so far. Each case seemed to drag me deeper and deeper into the danger zone. Was this the reason the email sender had told me that 'death was near?' I wondered if perhaps I should sit this one out. But the world was a dangerous place all over, and the recovery fee would substantially inflate the housing fund.

I viewed the robbery over and over again, looking for something I could use to explain my ability to solve the case, but I came up empty. And I was still without an explanation for how I could have solved the case when I went to bed that night.

* * *

I procrastinated telling Kathy about the offer from Amsterdam. Winter was terrible in the Northeast and most people were in foul moods to begin with once the holidays were over. Between the miserable weather, colds and flu, and having to pay all those holiday charge card bills, many people wore sour expressions until April. So I asked Kathy if she could get a week off from work and join me on a little vacation to the Caribbean. She didn't hesitate for even a second, practically screaming her desire to recline in the sun on a beach in the tropics.

Kathy left the destination decision up to me and I selected Nassau in the Bahamas. We flew down on Saturday morning and spent eight wonderful days either sightseeing or just soaking up the sun on a pristine beach. Nassau was beautiful, and I think it would take several more vacations there before we could see everything. Kathy's favorite part of the vacation was that I left my service weapon at home. FBI Special Agents weren't allowed to take their weapons out of the U.S. unless they had special orders or permission. At first I felt a bit naked without the heft of the Glock under my arm, but I adapted quickly.

The week in Nassau was so wonderful that I would have extended it another week if I could, but Kathy had to get back to the museum, and I had plans to head for Amsterdam. Surprisingly, Kathy didn't get too upset when I told her I planned to take the case. I think she felt people were more cultured and refined in Europe so I'd be in far less danger there than in the U.S. I was just happy we hadn't had an argument that spoiled even one moment of an incredible week.

* * *

The red-eye flight landed in Amsterdam on Monday morning, right on schedule. I tiredly trundled off the plane with my carry-on like the rest of the passengers who had probably tried as unsuccessfully as I to sleep through the severe turbulence we'd encountered over the ocean.

"De heer James?" a customs official holding the sign with my name asked when I stopped in front of him. When I nodded, he said, "Follow me please."

I fell in behind him as two more uniforms fell in behind me. The man in front led me past the customs counter and through a door that led to a corridor. A short walk brought us to an interview room where four more men, these in suits, waited. The room was large enough to hold all eight of us comfortably and I stood there staring at the suits for several seconds while they stared back. They appeared to be sizing me up.

"De heer James, welcome to the Netherlands," one finally said as he extended his hand. "I'm Gunter Wilhelm Schoenberg. I'm the General Director of the Amstelveen Museum."

As I took his hand, I was surprised by the strength of his grip. I had originally guessed his age to be about 60, so he either worked out or just appeared older than his years. I supposed he could be prematurely grey.

Gunter Schoenberg then introduced the other suits, pointing to them in turn. "This is Chief Inspector Schaake of the Korps Lndelijke Politiediensten, or KLDP, our national police force. He's part of the Dienst Nationale Recherche, or DNR, division.

"On his left is Floyd Ambrose from Interpol, and to his left is Kurt Locher, who heads up the investigations unit of the insurance company."

I nodded as I shook hands with each man in turn, then said, "I'm pleased to meet you, gentlemen. I wasn't expecting such a distinguished welcoming party."

"I suppose we were all a little anxious to meet the famous art recovery expert Colton James," Locher said. "Your career has been short but remarkable."

"And apparently profitable," Ambrose said. "We tried to secure your services through the FBI, but they said your arrangement with them wouldn't allow it. How can you work for the FBI and not be assigned to an Interpol operation as would any other Special Agent?"

"Simple. I only work cold cases, not active investigations, and my arrangement with the Bureau allows me to accept a certain number of cases each year where the recovery fee would exceed the scale they pay me. They gave their blessing for me to follow up on this case."

"That's a pretty sweet deal," Schaake said, in a tone I judged to be contemptuous.

"It was the only way I would agree to help clean up their cold case file. I can make a nice living on my own without working at the Bureau. I work for them mainly out a sense of patriotism rather than monetary compensation, but I couldn't allow that job to keep me from occasionally pursuing private cases."

Schoenberg must have detected an edge to my voice, because he quickly said, "I'm sure the Chief Inspector didn't mean to imply that there was anything untoward in your— career arrangements."

"Of course not," Schaake said, in an unconvincing tone. "Are you armed, James?"

"The Bureau requires field personnel to be armed at all times, except in bed or the shower, but only while in the U.S.," I said with a smile. "However, I received special permission to carry my service weapon and backup on this occasion, and Director Schoenberg informed me that he would arrange for me to carry my weapons while I was here."

"That means that you are?"

"Yes, Chief Inspector." I wondered if the guy was dense, there was a language problem, or if he was just trying to give me a tough time. I decided it was the latter.

"May I see your FBI service weapon please?"

I pulled out the Glock 23 and handed it over. "Careful, Chief Inspector. It's loaded."

He shot me a look I reserved for cab drivers in NYC who try to take longer routes to pump up the distance charges, then entered the serial number into a smart phone. After a second he nodded as the serial number was confirmed.

"Is that your only weapon?"

I reached down and pulled the Glock 27 from my ankle holster and handed it over. I had purchased it after I'd seen that one of the gang had an Uzi. I wanted a backup weapon, preferably one that used the same ammo as my issued weapon. "That's my personal weapon, but the serial number has been entered into the Bureau's database."

Schaake entered the number into his phone and then grimaced. "Is that all?"

"That's all the firearms I brought with me. Should I have brought more?"

Schaake grimaced at me. "I think these will be adequate," he said as he handed them back. "This isn't New York City or Chicago, after all."

"The Chief Inspector will issue a license for you to legally carry your two weapons in the Netherlands," Ambrose said, "and see that the local law enforcement people know of your presence here. Additionally, he'll see that you receive an EFP or European Firearms Pass so you'll be able to legally carry your weapons into any other member state should the need to travel arise."

"I thought the EFP was only for hunters, sporting event participants, and collectors."

"Normally, that's true. But the member states make certain allowances for law enforcement and security personnel who have a demonstrable need to carry their weapons, as long as the weapons are listed on the EFP. And you must have an EFP to board public transportation such as the EuroStar with weapons unless you are part of a member state's law enforcement services."

"Now, if you'd care to follow me," Schoenberg said, "I have a car waiting."

"I have to retrieve my bags first," I said.

"By now they should be in the car," Schaake said. "I left orders to retrieve them from the luggage area and take them outside."

"Thank you. That was very considerate of you." I figured they had probably examined everything in them as well. I wondered if they had bugged any of my clothes or personal possessions so they could track my movements. I had learned at Quantico just how incredibly small some tracking devices were these days.

I was relieved when Schoenberg was the only one to follow me out of the room.

When we reached the car, the driver held the door and I climbed in ahead of Schoenberg.

"Would you like to go to the museum or your hotel?" Schoenberg asked as he dropped heavily into the seat across from me.

"I didn't get much sleep on the plane," I said. "I'd like to take a stab at getting my internal clock synched with this time zone and then get a fresh start tomorrow morning."

"Fine. I do the same when I travel. I can never sleep on airplanes. If it's not constantly vibrating or even violently shaking, flight attendants or passengers are walking up and down the aisle and babies are crying." Schoenberg picked up the phone and gave instructions to the driver. When he was done, he asked, "Is this your first time in Amsterdam?"

"Yes. I'm not very well traveled outside the States. In fact I've never been outside of North America. I've spent some vacation time in Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean, but that's all."

As we pulled out of the airport, Schoenberg began acting like a tour guide, pointing out famous landmarks and good restaurants. I found him to be interesting and informative.

Schoenberg had booked me into the Hotel Pulitzer. Located along the Prinsengracht canal, the five-story building was probably the nicest hotel I had ever stayed in. It made some of the motels along the highways in the U.S. look like flophouses. I'd been told the insurance company would pay for my traveling expenses, and I wasn't sure if that extended to hotel accommodations, but I didn't care. My suite had a beamed cathedral ceiling and was larger than my flat in New York. I had an enormous bed, a table, and a desk. Yeah, I said quietly to myself once I was alone in the suite, I could live here. Before Schoenberg left, he gave me an expandable file folder filled to its full measure with everything they knew about the robbery.

I headed downstairs to the bar before settling in and walked to the bathroom. Once inside a stall, I took out the monitor and viewed the situation at the airport. I watched as the uniformed customs people and a suit looked through my two suitcases as if expecting to find drugs or something. The suit placed something tiny inside the breast pocket of each of my three suit coats and behind the manufacturer's label at the neck of the leather jacket I'd brought. So, I said silently, they want to see where I go. Okay, I can play that game.

I had watched Schaake carefully in the interview room, and he hadn't messed with either of my weapons, so I didn't bother reviewing that meeting, but I did scan the hotel room from the time the previous guests had checked out and saw no indication that they had placed mikes there. That was of little importance though, because the telephone line could be tapped, and it was even possible to overhear conversations in a room when the receiver was on the hook. It was also incredibly easy for anybody to record all conversations made with a cell phone.

I enjoyed a drink in the bar to show that I hadn't come down here just to use the restroom, then grabbed a meal in one of the dining rooms. I was yawning as I rode the elevator back to my suite, and once I hit the pillow I was in slumber land in minutes.

Chapter Sixteen

After breakfast I opened the file folder Schoenberg had left and read through the reports it contained. There was little I didn't know, or suspect, but I read every word. When I reached the end, I was sure their investigation had stalled completely. Well, that was why I was here after all.

I didn't know how long I was going to be in Amsterdam, so I planned to take a taxi to the museum instead of getting a rental car. But before I left the hotel, I used tweezers to remove all the tracking devices from my suit coats and jacket and place them in tiny evidence packets. I slipped one evidence packet in a pocket of the coat I was wearing, and the rest went into a drawer of the desk.

While passing through the lobby on my way out of the hotel, the desk clerk called my name and held out an envelope. When I walked to the desk, he said, "This was left for you this morning, Mr. James."

I thanked him and headed for the exit as I opened the envelope. Inside I found what appeared to be a license issued by the DNR to carry my weapons in the Netherlands. It had the same picture as found on my FBI ID, so the DNR must have gotten that from Washington, and it listed the serial numbers of both my weapons. It was encased in plastic, as were most IDs in recent years. I slid it into the pocket in my badge wallet behind my FBI ID. There was also an EFP in the envelope. I hoped I wouldn't have to travel outside the country, but it was useful to have in case travel was necessary.

They must have passed my photo around at the museum before I arrived because as soon as I entered a guard addressed me by name and asked me to accompany him to the security office. I was greeted warmly by the head of security, Captain Rudy Van der Burg, who invited me into his office. Kurt Locher, the insurance company security man, was already seated there.

"Good morning, James. I thought you might stop here this morning. I was just reviewing everything we know with Rudy."

"Tea or coffee, Mr. James?" Captain Van der Burg asked.

"Coffee would be great," I said, "and I prefer Colt."

"Colt?" Van der Burg said as he poured a cup of coffee from a brewing pot on a side table.

"That's my first name. It's short for Colton."

"Ah, and you must call me Rudy."

"Okay, Rudy," I said with an ingenuous smile, then added, "thanks," as he placed a mug of steaming coffee on the edge of the desk just in front of the chair I had selected. I made use of the sugar and cream containers that were on the desk in front of Locher, then sat back with my coffee and took a sip. The coffee was considerably stronger than I brewed it, but it was delicious.

Rudy was as different in appearance from Captain DeRosa as could be. Rather than a battlefield commander, he looked like a kindly old toymaker. He had a thick mustache that extended slightly beyond his chubby cheeks and a pot belly that would make a stove jealous. Locher on the other hand reminded me a lot of William Kovacs in New York. Perhaps there was an appearance requirement in the job description for senior insurance company security executives.

"James, I want to apologize for the behavior of Chief Inspector Schaake yesterday," Locher said. "He's upset that his people were unable to solve the crime and more than a bit irritated that we've turned to outside help. His office has been promising a big breakthrough for months, but so far they have nothing. He's a good cop, but he'd hoped the FBI would send you as a liaison investigator who would report to him while in the Netherlands."

"I understand his position," I said, "and I prefer Colt."

Locher smiled and said, "Sorry. Colt it is. We use last names in the office, and it's become a habit. Call me Kurt."

"Okay, Kurt. We use last names at the FBI also, but when I'm working a case, I prefer a bit more informality if the others on the case allow it. As to Schaake, it's not uncommon for local law enforcement to be upset when they find themselves being— supplanted— in an investigation. It's a blow to their professional pride that others view them as having been the least bit incompetent. But he has had more than eight months to find the thieves and shouldn't object to others being brought in who might be able to offer a fresh perspective."

"Yes, I agree. So, any ideas? Schoenberg said that he passed on the Interpol file from Ambrose. It's probably as complete as Schaake's."

"Yes, I reviewed the file this morning," I replied. "It seems very complete. I'd like to tour the crime scene today and then the roof and back alley."

"The back alley?" Rudy said. "There's nothing back there. The crime team examined it and found nothing. There weren't even any tire tracks, so the thieves apparently weren't in a hurry to escape."

"Which might mean they had one or more accomplices whose job it was to notify them if the police became alerted to the crime."

"There's no way to know that," Kurt said, "since the police weren't alerted until six a.m. when the guard shift ended and the next team came on duty. It's standard procedure to test the alarm system for two seconds using internal alarm bells only. When the system failed to sound, both shifts began investigating. The test lights indicated that the system was operating properly, but it had been shorted out. These people were pros."

"Don't you have a roving patrol during the night?"

"It was discontinued due to budget cutbacks after the new alarm was installed," Rudy said. "I told them all I needed was two more guards and we could do hourly sweeps."

"You'll get your two people now," Kurt said, "or the premiums will rise tenfold beyond what the salary costs would be. If the police had been notified a few hours earlier, they might have been able to catch these guys. As it was, the gang could have been in Dusseldorf before the theft was even reported."

I finished the last of my coffee, and as I put my cup down, I said, "Shall we get started?"

"Yes," Rudy said, "but I have to notify Maarten Pieter Hilhorst, our Director of Collections. He wishes to come along. We will also be joined by Stef Dekker, the owner of the alarm company who installed our alarm system, and his son, Henk. They're presently with Director Hilhorst."

"Fine. Let's get started."

Ten minutes later, the six of us were in the area where the theft had taken place. I recognized it immediately from having viewed the robbery on the gizmo so many times. A different exhibit filled the space but Rudy had temporarily closed the section off to visitors. He pointed out where the criminals had entered and where the pictures had hung.

"We thought this was the most secure part of the museum," Rudy said. "It's true there's a skylight here, but it was welded closed and the roof is four stories above the ground. They brought some sort of torch with them and cut through the tack welds, but the alarms should have alerted the guards to the break-in. We have infrared passive and motion detectors, and each picture has a contact switch connection that's impossible to override. But once the alarm system was disabled, the sensors were useless. Stef can explain exactly how they overrode the system."

Stef Dekker looked more like a workingman than company management. Standing about five foot nine, he appeared to be in good health and moderately good physical condition. He had intelligent eyes, so I was confused when his son, the spitting image of his father less thirty years or so, began to act as interpreter while his father educated us about the alarm system in Dutch. Henk Dekker told us his father was fluent in Dutch, German, and French, but knew little English, while his own English was excellent.

I listened to the translated explanation about the alarm and understood most of what was said. My only question at the end of the presentation was, "So the thieves managed to override a system believed to be impregnable. How do you explain that?"

The elder Dekker shrugged his shoulders and shook his head even before his son translated the question. So he does speak English, I thought.

I wandered around for a few minutes, thinking about the alarm system and getting a better feel for the layout. Parked off to the side was one of those portable platform scaffold units they use to change light bulbs in high ceiling fixtures. It was like a scissors jack and rose up electrically for the maintenance people.

"Was that unit used for the escape?" I asked Rudy, pointing to the scissors scaffold."

"No, that unit wasn't here that day. It was on another floor. I had it brought up so you could see where they cut through the skylight welds. The thieves must have used ropes to climb down and then back up. Shall we examine the skylight?"

When I nodded, he motioned to a maintenance worker standing with the machine. The man brought it over and positioned it beneath the skylight. It only held four people, so the two Dekkers weren't able to join us. Once we were in, Rudy used the controls to raise us up to the skylight some twenty feet up.

There were two new, very solid-looking locks hanging from heavy hasps that also looked brand new. Rudy unlocked both and set them on the floor of the scaffold, then raised the skylight up and secured it in place with a steel bar so it couldn't crash down on us while we were examining the area.

I had watched the crime repeatedly, so I had information they didn't. I did my best Sherlock Holmes impression, less the magnifying glass routine, as I examined the skylight. Finally, I said, "Is this blood here?" as I pointed to a small red stain in the untreated trim woodwork where the skylight unit met the roof. I knew the previous investigators hadn't paid attention to it, although they'd dusted the entire area looking for fingerprints.

"We didn't find any blood," Rudy said as he looked closer. "It's probably from the workmen who fixed the skylight afterward."

"Then perhaps we should have it examined," I said as I pulled out my pocket knife and sliced evenly into the soft pine wood. "If it's from the museum workmen, we can discount it." The narrow smear was about an inch long and wasn't from a fingerprint. I bisected it and then slid the sharp blade under the left half to separate it from the trim. It lifted up and sliced off like any wood shaving should. I left the other half in place so the police would be able to testify that the blood had definitely come from the skylight trim. I dropped my shaving into a small plastic evidence pouch I had brought along, then handed it to Kurt, who moved slightly to examine it in the best light.

"It certainly looks like blood," he said. "Of course, it could be paint."

"Except the trim work isn't painted, and nothing else is that color. Can you have it checked with Schaake's people, or should I turn it over to Interpol?"

"I'll take it over to the Chief Inspector's office personally," Kurt said. "You really think it's blood?"

"If it's not, it's a pretty good imitation. In any event, we can't discount it until we know for sure. If it is blood from one of the thieves, we might have the first solid clue to the identity of our perps."

I already knew it was blood because I had seen one of the thieves react when he sliced himself as he was climbing through the skylight. In cutting through the weld tacks, they had left jagged edges. They were all wearing gloves, but this cut happened in the uncovered area between the glove and the jacket cuff. It was really just a scrape, and it hadn't bled profusely, but it might be enough to identify him. Any other blood had probably soaked into the lining of the glove or the jacket cuff.

There was nothing else of interest up there, but I killed some more time just to appear thorough before saying I had seen enough and would like to see the roof. We weren't about to try to climb out the skylight, so Rudy resealed the opening and lowered the scaffold.

As soon as we were down, the elder Dekker said something in Dutch. The son said, "He wants to know what you found." They had been watching us from below while we were on the scaffold.

Normally, I would be non-committal in an investigation, but we needed to make something happen on this case, so I said, "A bit of blood. We should be able to identify one of the thieves from the DNA. The case is almost solved." The son never translated for his father, but the old man understood. I could see it in his eyes.

We used a stairway to reach the roof. The door that opened to the outside looked like it could withstand a small army of thieves trying to enter the museum that way. I did my brilliant investigator act for a while, but there really wasn't much to see on the roof after I examined the skylight from outside. I was able to acquire a feel for the layout though. That had sort of been missing because it had been so dark the night of the robbery and I hadn't viewed the scene during the day.

I wrapped up my crime scene investigation in the alleyway behind the museum after thanking the Dekkers for their information and saying goodbye. Two overhead doors at a loading dock provided museum access for deliveries, and there was a steel entrance door that looked like a cousin to the one on the roof. I was sure this one could withstand a battering ram attack from an ancient army. The alley was easily wide enough for a tractor-trailer to enter and back up to the loading area. I resumed my inscrutable detective pose and walked back and forth across the area, stopping occasionally to look at something such as marks on the road before continuing.

After about ten minutes of wandering around, I bent over to examine something I had discovered quite by accident. I withdrew a pair of tweezers from my pocket and picked up the object carefully, then dropped it into a fresh evidence pouch. It appeared to be a button from a jacket. I hadn't been looking for it, but there was always the outside possibility that it had come off the clothing worn by one of the crooks. Rudy, Kurt, and Hilhorst came hurrying over when they saw my actions.

"Did you find something, Colt?" Rudy asked.

"A button."

"A button," Hilhorst said. "Just a button?"

"Yes, but you never know what might be significant."

"But we're half a block from the museum. And that button could have been there for years."

"We're only about forty-meters from the loading dock. And the button might have only been there since the night of the robbery."

I ignored the facial expressions as all three men grimaced. I assumed they were trying to mask their minor displeasure with the importance I was placing on an insignificant item. Or perhaps they were wondering if my reputation was earned and whether inviting me into the investigation had been wise. I already knew who the crooks were and where the stolen artwork was secreted, but I sure couldn't tell them that my information came from watching the robbery. I needed to come up with something plausible that would both reinforce my reputation and entitle me to the offered recovery reward.

"Thank you for your time today, gentlemen," I said as I extended my hand, first to Director Hilhorst and then to Captain Van der Burg, and finally to Locher. "I think I've learned everything I can from the scene of the crime."

"What now, Colt?" Rudy asked as he shook my hand.

"Well, we'll have to wait to see about that blood smear. We should at least learn the blood type. If we're lucky, perhaps they'll be able to perform a DNA analysis and cross match it against criminal records. I also want to follow up on this button with Interpol. Perhaps Ambrose can learn something useful. We might be able to learn which manufacturer uses it, on what products, and where they were sold."

"That's an awful lot of information to expect from a wood chip and a loose button," Kurt said.

"Sometimes the biggest criminals are tripped up by the smallest clues."

After dropping the button off at the Interpol office, I returned to my hotel so I could change out of my suit and go casual.

I had removed the small tracking devices from my coats, but I took time to look at the rest of my possessions, trying to determine if they had placed devices in anything else. I wished I had brought some of my bug detection gear, but I hadn't really thought I'd need it. I slipped an evidence pouch with one of the tracking bugs into the pocket of the coat I'd be wearing.

When I didn't find any other bugs, I finished dressing and went down to the bar. In the bathroom, I used the gizmo in an attempt to see if the button might have come from one of the art thieves. I zoomed into the place where I had found it and discovered that it wasn't there the day before the robbery. It was too dark to see if it had appeared during the robbery, so I jumped ahead to midday and looked again. It still wasn't there. In an effort to save time I tried to tag the button, but the gizmo wouldn't lock onto it. I supposed it was too small. Up to that point I had only locked onto much larger objects or people.

Before leaving the stall, I did a quick surveillance of my suite. No one had come while I was gone except the maid. It was possible she could have planted a mike somewhere, but she hadn't been obvious about it if she had. I decided it would be best if I continued to use the restroom stall when I needed to use the gizmo.

I stopped at the bar for a quick whiskey and soda, then did the tourist thing for the rest of the afternoon. I knew the tiny tracking devices couldn't have much range, so I enjoyed the game of trying to spot my shadows. I pegged three. I knew Schaake had been serious about tailing me when he used the four miniature tracking devices, but I hadn't expected him to assign an entire taskforce to follow me. If I'd seen three, there had to be more. The tracking device might even have had audio capability. There was some sophisticated equipment out there if the money was available to pay for it, and governments always had the money. The only motivation I could imagine was that Schaake hoped to solve the case before me by using my leads, thus sparing his department the embarrassment of being shown up by an *cough* American.

I decided to make a game of it and led the people following me on a zigzag trail across Amsterdam. There were a few amusing minutes when I stopped into a museum. A security guard recognized one of the cops tailing me. The guard tried to strike up a conversation with his friend and couldn't seem to take the hint that his friend was on assignment. When the guard did finally understand, he walked stiffly away but kept watching me until I left the museum. I suppose he felt that if his friend was tailing me, I must be a criminal.

As the dinner hour approached, I took a cab to one of the restaurants Schoenberg had pointed out the first day. The food was excellent, and as I had guessed, the bill was for more than I'd once spent on food for an entire month.

After returning to my hotel, I sat down at the desk in my suite and again studied the investigation data in the file folder, searching for something to support my eventual report. I went to bed frustrated.

While having breakfast in my suite the next morning, my cell phone rang.

"I just heard from Schaake," Kurt Locher said when I picked it up. "The substance on the wood chip is indeed human blood. It's Type AB, RH-Negative. Neither of the workmen who repaired the skylight damage are a match. Schaake has sent a forensics team to the museum to cut out that area of the trim work. They'll enter it as evidence in the case, but it'll probably take ten days to get the DNA work completed and another one or two to run a search for matches."

"That's great, Kurt. Too bad we have to wait that long."

"It has top priority over every other case in the lab. The area under the skylight is in the shadows and doesn't get hit with direct sunlight, but it's been quite a while since the crime so it may be difficult to get an accurate read. The testing takes longer when the blood has degraded."

"I know. Have you heard any rumors on the street about the art being offered for sale?"

"Nothing yet. But we have all our informants listening. They'd love to get a piece of the reward pie."

"Nope, that's mine."

"You sound confident, Colt. Have you heard something?"

"Not yet, but if the artwork is still in Europe, I'll find it."

"But how? I mean, it was great you spotted that blood, but you said you don't speak any of the languages here other than English."

"Money is the universal language, Kurt. People usually find a way to communicate when you wave greenbacks, pounds, or Euros under their noses."

"But you've only worked in the U.S. until now. You can't have any contacts here."

"As of this moment, no— but that will be different tomorrow."

"I wish you luck, my friend. We've had our informers out seeking information for months. And we've offered substantial sums for any information leading to the recovery of the paintings."

"Sometimes people know things they don't associate with a theft. It takes someone with the right experience to put all the tiny pieces together and solve the mystery."

"Shall I chill the champagne?" Kurt asked jokingly.

"Give it a few days. I'll let you know when."

I heard a click, and then my phone chimed to tell me the signal had been lost. I guess he was no more accustomed to using a sign off than a greeting at the start of the conversation.

I knew I couldn't just sit around for two weeks until the DNA report was completed and hope they would find a match. Well, I could— I loved the hotel and the city— but I didn't want to. Amsterdam might have been one of the cleanest large cities I'd ever been in, but the dirty city by the disgusting but spectacular Hudson River was my home, and I loved her like no other. So what if I rarely saw anyone sweeping the sidewalk outside their building or that I couldn't see more than a few inches into the water at the harbor? It was New York.

I finished my breakfast and showered but didn't shave. The dark stubble would help me blend into the environments I planned to frequent. Before traveling to Europe, I had identified each of the perps by following them around until I discovered their names. I knew the places they frequented, and I intended to begin visiting them and allowing myself to be seen there for later proof of my investigation. But I didn't want my tails to see me there yet, so I dressed as casually as I could and removed the tiny transmitter from the jacket. I placed it in the desk with the others, then left my suite.

I used a back stairway to descend to the lobby level and then exited through the rear to the hotel's garden. The entire block was composed of three- to five-story buildings, but I was able to hop a low wall into the rear yard of a tavern that faced the Keizersgracht canal and walk through the tavern to the street. Until then I had only entered and exited through the front of the hotel where the single occupant of a nondescript car had always been watching the entrance from just across the canal.

I spent the day in restaurants and taverns, buying drinks and doing my best to communicate with locals who looked like they would kill their mother for a Euro. I had taken some basic art classes in college, so I had made sketches of two of the perps. I was no artist, and they were really only resemblances of the real people, but I made a point of offering money for information about them. I kept a wary eye out for police tails and gang members, but I'd seen none. Until I'd begun my slumming, I hadn't realized how prevalent the drug culture was in Amsterdam. It made drug issues in New York seem minor by comparison.

At dinnertime I headed for a restaurant I'd seen during my tourist day. I'd been careful not to imbibe very much during my day of boozing, preferring to let my contacts drink my drink as well as their own, so I treated myself to a large mug of beer as I waited for my snert with rookworst and roggebrood.

The soup and bread were delicious, and I followed that up with boerenkoolstamppot. For dessert I ordered appeltaart and coffee. As I left the restaurant I patted my stomach lightly. I felt good. All the food I'd had since arriving in Amsterdam had been great, although I'd have to admit to having shied away from any of the herring or eel dishes.

I entered the hotel the same way I'd left, through the garden, and didn't encounter any of the tails I'd spotted previously. Of course, they might have changed the team or even removed the stakeout completely, but I doubted the latter. Schaake had planted some very expensive bugs in my clothing. As long as they hadn't been retrieved, I knew he was watching. And I confirmed they were still there by checking for their presence in my desk.

I spent the next several days among the lower classes in places where other tourists never went, if they were smart. I made a point of visiting every one of the earlier locations and talking with the same people if they could manage some degree of English. I asked about the same two individuals every time and showed the pictures. My goal was to be instantly recognized when Schaake's people began showing my photograph around. I always shaved after returning to the hotel each evening so my stubble would look about the same each day.

Sunday was spent in my suite, watching a little television, talking to Kathy, and reading the English newspapers. I also went through the investigation file again. I think I already knew it as well as I could, but I was desperate for something that would support the final report I'd already written in my head. In the late afternoon I put a tracking device back into my jacket and went for a walk. I spotted that same auto across the canal, and after a few blocks, I spotted a couple of the tails I had tagged earlier.

After returning to the hotel, I visited the bar and headed to the washroom so I could use my gizmo in the stall. I watched myself as I consorted with the lower forms of life in Amsterdam during the past week, looking for anyone who might be watching me, or any of the thieves. I did see one face repeatedly. He seemed to be following me, but didn't act like a cop. I marked him using the gizmo's tagging feature and then jumped to different times throughout the day. He was always close to where I was, even when he couldn't see me directly. A few times he watched me in the reflection of a shop window, and once he watched me from a hallway window in a third story apartment building across from the tavern where I was spreading cheer in the form of free drinks while I asked questions. He was good. I wondered if I should be worried. What was I saying? Of course I should be worried. For the first time since joining the FBI, I was glad for those months of training at Quantico and for the deadly weapon I was required to carry at all times for self-protection.

Chapter Seventeen

I wanted to try to identify the guy who was tailing me, but I couldn't stay in the stall any longer. I put the gizmo away, flushed the toilet, and made a pretense of zipping my pants as I stepped out. A guy washing his hands at the sink glanced up at me, then continued with what he was doing. He was gone by the time I'd washed and dried my hands.

Out at the bar I ordered a drink, then headed for one of the comfortable black leather, barrel-style chairs at a small circular table. I'd only been there a few seconds before Ambrose of Interpol stopped at my table.

"Join you?" he asked.

I nodded and said, "Sure."

He dropped into the chair opposite mine as the waitress brought my drink. She took his order, then retreated to the bar.

"You've been busy," Ambrose said.

"Have I?"

"That's what I've heard. First you find a blood smear at the crime scene that no one else spotted, then a button in the alley, and now—," he paused for minute, "you're talking to every drunken sot in the city and buying them drinks."

"It's cheap information," I said.

"Is this how they do it in America these days?"

"I don't know how others do it. I'm at a bit of a disadvantage here because I'm off my home turf, so I'm doing what I can. How did you hear of my wanderings?"

"I have my sources."

"I'm sure. One of them wouldn't happen to be about thirty, skinny, with long, stringy brown hair, would it?"

"Nope, not one of mine. Mine's about sixty with a short white beard, always smells like a distillery and looks like a pile of clothes someone just found in a trash pile."

"That could fit any of two dozen I've spoken to."

"That's the idea."

"Anything on the button I found?"

We paused our conversation when the waitress brought his drink, and he took a sip.

"It's from a work shirt available in thousands of stores and on-line catalogs," he said. "There are two dozen places in Amsterdam alone that carry that product."

"Hmm, dead end," I said. "Oh well, it was worth a try. Perhaps we can match it up with clothing when we arrest the perps."

"Have you turned up anything with your tavern visits?"

"Well, I can say I've gotten someone other than Schaake interested enough to put a tail on me."

"How do you know it's not one of Schaake's people?"

"You don't seem surprised that Schaake would be tailing me."

"I'm not. It's obvious he resents your presence here and would probably love to know your movements. Why do you believe this person isn't one of Schaake's."

"I suppose it could be, but I've ID'd most of his people already. This guy is better than all of them put together. I haven't tried to lose him, but I think that won't be easy given that he knows the town and I don't."

"So you're not going to tell me if you've learned anything."

"I've learned a great deal. I just haven't put the pieces together yet."

"Yet you feel confident enough to ask about two specific individuals. Is this all a fishing expedition? Are you hoping they'll come after you?"

"It would end any uncertainty, wouldn't it?"

"That's not all it could end. I'm not a fisherman, but I know it can be rough on the bait."

"I'm aware of that, but you've been investigating this for months and, as far as I know, you have no suspects. If someone comes after me and is a bit faster than I am, you might have a fresh lead to pursue."

Ambrose picked up his drink and held it out for a second, "Here's to the bait," he said, then downed his drink in one gulp and stood up. "See you around, James. I hope."

I took a deep breath and released it slowly, then finished off my drink, signed the bill, and headed for the dining room. I had accomplished part of my objective. Ambrose knew I had been searching for leads in the seamier sections of the city, places where nothing was more sacred than the money they thought you would pay for information. But I needed to find out who the skinny guy was who had been tailing me. There were so many people interested in my activities that I didn't know where it was safe to use the gizmo. I tried to put everything else out of my mind as I concentrated on translating the dinner menu.

After dinner I went for a walk along the canal. I didn't like the idea of roaming around in a strange city after dark, but I figured it was safe if I stayed in well lit, heavily trafficked areas, and I really needed the relaxation of a long walk. There was no way to know how many pairs of eyes were following my every movement, but I supposed that knowing several belonged to cops should make me feel more secure. They couldn't stop someone from shooting me, but at least they would be there to call for an ambulance if someone did attempt a hit.

I turned north as I exited the hotel. The road there was wide enough for only one car, so traffic along the canal was just one-way. The only vehicles I'd seen since leaving the hotel were bicycles and motor scooters. Since the sidewalk was busy with strolling pedestrians, I chose to walk in the road along the low curb just two meters from the canal.

I was just passing the Anne Frank house and museum when I heard the screech of tires behind me. I turned at the sound and saw a car headed directly towards me, hugging the curb as it accelerated. Without thinking I leapt to my left, planning on jumping into the canal, and tripped over the low pipe railing used by boats to tie up to the canal wall. I suppose I was lucky there happened to be no boats tied up at that spot or I would have lost all my front teeth when I nosedived onto its deck. As I entered the water I heard a loud crash behind me.

The water was deep enough at that spot that I didn't hit bottom, and I surfaced several body-lengths from the wall. Amsterdam may be a beautiful city, but I can testify now that its canals are no cleaner than the Hudson.

Light from street lamps and buildings was enough for me to instantly get my bearings, and I could see dozens of people rushing towards the spot where I'd launched myself for my evening swim. There weren't any convenient swim platforms or ladders on the wall nearest me, but a tour boat was tied up to the shore about five meters away, so I headed for that. It wasn't true that people from New York City couldn't swim. It's just that the Hudson isn't an ideal aqueous medium. And I personally preferred not to be fully clothed and loaded down with two handguns and extra clips when I take a dip. I probably looked pretty ungainly as I tried to swim while also struggling to stay afloat, but I made it to the boat.

As I grabbed hold of the rope that held a rubber boat fender just above the waterline and began trying to pull myself up, I felt two pairs of strong hands grab me by the jacket and arms, and lift me onto the boat.

The first thing I did was thank the crewmen of the boat. The second thing I did was feel for the small matchbox in my right pocket and then verify that my wallet was still in my rear pocket. Living in a big city, I was in the habit of always buttoning the button tab on that pocket, and when I bought slacks that didn't have a button tab, I had one sewn on.

Finally, I verified that my badge and weapons were still there. It's difficult to miss the weight of forty-caliber pistols, but I wanted to make sure they were secure in their holsters.

As I opened my jacket to check the pistol under my left armpit, my two rescuers raised their hands and took a step back, fear registering on their faces. I smiled and pulled out my ID wallet. As I flipped it open I said, "Politie," the Dutch word for police.

One of the men looked at the ID and said, "American?"

I nodded and said, "Yes, working with the Dutch National police and Interpol."

At that point the men lowered their hands. The second asked, "Spy?"

I shook my head and said, "Policeman," then bent to check my ankle holster. Everything was secure, but I would have to dry and clean everything when I got back to my hotel. As I walked up the gangway to the canal wall, I heard the second crewman say knowingly to the other, "American spy." I smiled as I thought about the amazing affect American movies had on other cultures.

The car that had almost run me down had struck a tree half a meter beyond where I'd fallen into the canal. I guess the driver had been so intent on killing me that he never saw the tree, or perhaps my unique diving form was responsible for the distraction. Whatever, it appeared I was lucky to have tripped into the canal because the wide-open driver's side door was almost hanging over the wall. And if not for the tree, the car might have come down on top of me while I was in the water. I looked around but didn't see anyone who appeared to be the driver.

I guess the gathering pedestrians were trying to avoid the water dripping from me and pooling on the ground wherever I walked because they were giving me a wide berth. "Did you see the driver?" I asked one man, but he just shrugged his shoulders. I didn't know if that meant he hadn't seen the driver or that he didn't understand my words.

Another man offered, "I saw him fall out of the car after the door flew open. Then he ran away. He was bleeding from the head. Perhaps he was drunk and wanted to avoid the police."

I nodded. "That's probably it. Can you describe him at all?"

"He was tall, though not nearly as tall as you, and skinny. He had long brown hair. I didn't get a good look at his face because he was holding his hand up to his forehead as if trying to stop the blood."

"Thanks," I said, then walked around to the front of the car. The windshield was smashed, and the spot where the driver's head had impacted it when the air bag had failed to deploy was clearly visible. If an attempt to run someone down was going to be undertaken, it was probably a good idea to wear the seatbelt just in case the air bag malfunctioned.

When the first police car arrived, an officer got out and started ordering people to get away from the car and back on the sidewalk. More sirens could be heard in the distance.

When the cop reached me, he asked me a question in Dutch. I said in English that I didn't speak Dutch, so he asked me in stilted English if I had been driving the car. I told him what happened and why I was dripping water all over the street. When he asked for my ID, I identified myself as an FBI agent working with Interpol and the DNR, and that I was armed. I didn't want him to get the wrong idea if he spotted my service pistol when I opened my coat.

He looked at me skeptically, but said, "May I see your official ID, please?"

As I reached into my jacket, he put his hand on his sidearm. I stopped and looked at him. When he nodded, I continued reaching for my ID wallet. I withdrew it slowly and he relaxed. When I flipped it open, he relaxed even more, but that might have been because another policeman had arrived. I removed the recently issued pistol permit from the pocket behind my ID and handed it to cop number two then held out my FBI ID to cop number one.

Cop number one looked at my ID closely, then spoke in Dutch to cop number two for a few seconds before handing my ID back. "Okay, Special Agent James. Thank you. My fellow officer had heard there was an FBI agent working in the city. Can you tell me any more of what happened here?"

As I accepted the pistol permit back from cop number two, I said, "All I know is that I went out for a stroll after having dinner at the Hotel Pulitzer, and a car almost hit me. Would have too, if I hadn't dived into the canal."

"You're very fortunate. Did you get a good look at him?"

"I heard tires squealing, turned, saw headlights heading towards me, then went into the water. A witness told me the man ran away, holding his head. He said the man appeared drunk and was bleeding, as you can see from the ground here."

The policeman looked down and saw the blood splatters I was referring to.

"Nothing else?"

"Nothing else," I confirmed.

"You're staying at the Hotel Pulitzer?"

"Yes. Chief Inspector Schaake knows how to reach me."

The policeman looked at me for second. I suppose he was wondering if I was name-dropping for a reason. "Very well. Are you injured at all?"

"No, I'm just wet and cold."

"You may go. Would you like a ride back to the hotel when we're done here?"

"Thank you, no. I'll walk back. It's just a couple of blocks, and I expect you'll be tied up here for a while with paperwork and interviewing witnesses."

"Very well. Goodnight."

It hadn't been that cold out, but my wet clothes made it seem a good twenty degrees below the official temperature. I hurried back to my hotel, ignoring the open-mouthed, wide-eyed stares of pedestrians and hotel personnel alike. Once in my suite, I wasted no time in stripping off all my clothes while running hot water in the shower to get it up to temperature. As billowing steam began to lend the appearance of a sauna to the bathroom, I adjusted the water temperature to ensure it wouldn't scald my skin, then stepped in. It wasn't instant relief from the chill I'd been feeling, but I knew it wouldn't take long.

I stayed under the wonderful spray until I felt relaxed, then washed my body and shampooed my hair to remove any residue and harmful bacteria I might have picked up while splashing about in the canal. I didn't trust the filthy water in Amsterdam any more than I trusted the disgusting water in the Hudson. After emerging from the shower, I donned my bathrobe and began the final recovery steps from my evening's adventure. I removed everything from the pockets of my clothes, then called down to have my clothes picked up and cleaned. I was spreading out the contents of my wallet when a bellman arrived to collect my wet clothes.

My driver's license, credit cards, official ID and a few other items were plastic or plastic coated, so they only had to be wiped down, but the small amount of paper money had to be wiped and spread out on a towel to dry. I also had the usual pile of papers people collect in their wallets. Each piece had to be peeled from the pile and set out alone to dry before everything became stuck together. Some items with non-permanent ink had run, but there was nothing I could do about that. The stick matchbox was almost ruined, but the gizmo seemed fine. I set the box aside to dry, thinking it might suffice until I found a replacement, and I placed the gizmo in the hotel desk as the bottom sheet in a small pile of writing paper. The gizmo was a different size than the hotel's writing paper, but I didn't think it would be noticeable to most observers.

Opening up the battery compartment of my cell phone, I removed the battery, then shook the small instrument to get as much water as possible out. I didn't hold out much hope for its recovery, but one never knew as long as the battery was removed before anything else. When it was dry it might work, but if it was still wet it would probably short out with that first use. I would use the hotel hair dryer on it when I was done cleaning my pistols and then let it sit overnight.

After field stripping both weapons and drying them as well as I could, I took out my small cleaning kit and gave each of them a good cleaning and lubrication. Lastly, I used the hair dryer on my cell phone, keeping the heat on the lowest setting. I wanted to dry it, not melt it.

It was a lot of work for a two-minute dip, but I was finally finished. The next day I would use the stall in the bathroom downstairs to get a look at the man who had tried to kill me. I didn't believe for a second that the driver was drunk or that it had been an accident. When I had turned and seen that car headed straight at me, I'd known instantly that the driver intended to kill me. I was lucky to still be alive.

As I prepared for bed, I was suddenly struck by the significance of something I'd noticed earlier but which hadn't registered. My gizmo, which was a standard size for letter paper in North America, was a different size than the hotel's writing paper, which appeared to conform to the ISO size of A4 originally established by the Germans. I hadn't been thinking about the origin of the device since leaving New York, and this might be a valuable clue. If the inventors had been trying to disguise the paper in some way, what better way than to make it a standard size so it could be mixed with other papers? And since letter size was a North American standard not used elsewhere, the gizmo must have originated in North America— unless someone had used that size to disguise the gizmo for traveling in North America. Perhaps it wasn't as significant as I had briefly thought.

I decided to sleep on it.

My clothes were returned the next morning when my breakfast was delivered to the suite. The hotel staff, or whoever had performed the cleaning, had done an excellent job, and they looked none the worse for having been dipped into the canal.

Halfway through breakfast, I was surprised to hear a knock at the door. Chief Inspector Schaake was standing in the hall when I answered it. I stepped back and he entered with one of his men while another stayed out in the hallway.

"Coffee, Chief Inspector?" I asked, before he had even opened his mouth.

He nodded, pulled a chair over to the table and filled a cup from the pitcher, then added milk and sugar, while I sat down to finish my breakfast. I knew Schaake would tell me why he'd come when he was ready.

Schaake had the good manners to wait until I'd finished eating and poured myself another cup of coffee.

"You lied to the police officer last night," he finally said.

"Lied? What do you believe I lied about?"

"You told him that a drunk almost ran you down. We've since learned that the car was stolen, and there's no evidence that the man was drunk."

"I never said he was drunk. I said a witness told me that a man, bleeding from a head wound, and who appeared to be drunk, exited the car and ran away. I was still in the canal at that time, so I never even got a look at him."

"He veered off the road and headed directly towards you," Schaake said with a hint of anger in his voice. "How could you not see him?"

"I was walking north, with my back to traffic. When I heard the tires screech and the engine roar, I turned, but it was already dark and I was blinded by the vehicle's headlights. I leapt towards the canal, but tripped on a low pipe, so I wound up going in head first instead of feet first."

"Who in Amsterdam would want to kill you?"

"I can think of only one group."

"The gang that committed the robbery? Why?"

"I might be getting too close."

"Ambrose told me you questioned one of his operatives."

"I didn't know he was one of Ambrose's people. I was just seeking information."

"I understand you've been seen in some very disreputable places recently."

"That's usually where you can find information about the very disreputable people we're looking for."

"We've already covered that ground."

"And did you learn anything?"

Schaake didn't respond. He just stared at me.

"I assume that means you didn't."

"Have you?"

"I've picked up a little."

"The law requires you turn over any evidence you find."

"I have. I immediately turned over the blood smear I found, and I gave the button to Ambrose. There is no other evidence to be turned over."

"What of the information you've uncovered?"

"It's just bits and pieces right now. It's more leads than evidence. At the proper time, I'll give you everything."

"When you think you've solved the case?"

"Isn't that why I was invited here?"

"I didn't invite you."

"True. You'd prefer to see the criminals escape justice rather than have someone else get the credit for solving the crime."

Schaake bristled, and I half expected him to jump to his feet. "That's a lie."

"How do you see it? You'd hit a dead end and exhausted all leads before the insurance company invited me in."

"Something will turn up eventually. It always does."

"I'd be willing to bet you have file cabinets full of unsolved robberies, assaults, arsons, counterfeiting scams, identity theft, missing persons, and murder cases."

"Every police force in the world has that."

"Exactly. So something doesn't always 'turn up eventually.' Often, the cases must be solved."

"And you believe yourself to be our proactive solution?"

"I could be, if you stopped working against me."

"Against you? What do you mean?"

I stood up and walked to the desk where I removed all but one of the tiny evidence envelopes containing the tracking devices. As I returned to the table, I tossed them down in front of Schaake."

"What are these?" he asked as he picked up the plastic envelopes.

"Those are the tracking devices your people put into my clothes when I arrived at the airport."

"I never placed tracking devices into your clothes or personal possessions and never ordered anyone to do that either."

"Your people retrieved my suitcases from the airline, and when they were brought out to the car, one of those tracking devices was inside each of my suit jackets. Perhaps someone else took it upon himself to order the placement of the bugs, but it was done by your people."

An angry look came over Schaake's face and his voice was loud as he said, "They weren't put there by my people."

"Who else could have done it?"

"Perhaps they were there when you boarded the plane."

"No. Not a chance. I scan my apartment and auto for bugs on a regular basis. They weren't in my clothes before I reached Amsterdam."

"You scan your own apartment?"

"Of course. This is the information age and people always want an edge over the competition, or their perceived enemies."

"Well, we didn't bug your clothes."

"Then it sounds like you have another unsolved crime on your hands, Chief Inspector. If it helps, I believe I can ID every one of the people who tailed me when I was wearing one of those bugs."

"If you spotted them, they definitely couldn't be mine."

I just shrugged. "They belong to somebody who knew I was coming and wanted to track my movements. You were the most likely candidate since your people were the only ones to handle my bags, other than Customs."

"Yesss— Customs. I've heard rumors about certain involvements with criminal organizations, but we've never had anything substantive to move on."

"Congratulations, Chief Inspector. You've got your first lead. For starters, I suggest you find out everything you can about those tracking devices, such as who made them and what their range is."

Chapter Eighteen

I was almost hesitant to walk out of the hotel after the attack of the previous night, but I couldn't hide in my suite. If I was going to do that, I might as well head back to New York. The service pistol under my left armpit was comforting, and the pistol in my ankle holster was reassuring.

However, before I ventured out again, I wanted to use the gizmo to track my assailant. I had used the stall in the bathroom near the bar several times now, and the people watching me might have begun to suspect it was for reasons other than bodily waste elimination. Nevertheless, I was leery of using the gizmo in my suite, so I opted for one more session in the toilet stall.

The driver who had tried to run me down was, in fact, the one who had been tailing me. I tagged him, set the gizmo to the day before I arrived, and then ran it forward in high speed to see if he had made contact with anyone I knew and possibly learn his name. He had talked on his cell phone several dozen times since I arrived, but there was no face-to-face contact with any of the thieves involved in the robbery. I watched him as he tailed me for two days and then as he broke into the car he used for his murder attempt. After hitting the tree, he literally fell out of the auto, obviously dazed and barely conscious at first.

After running from the scene, he found a place near another canal to wet a handkerchief and wipe the blood that had dribbled down his face. After making a quick call from his cell phone, he continued on foot until he found another car to steal. Twenty minutes later he was lying on a table in someone's kitchen while a woman stitched the gash on his forehead. He paid for the services before leaving, and I never got the impression that this was anything other than an illegal clinic, like those found in every city, large or small, where injured criminals who couldn't seek medical attention at a hospital could find help. Usually, they were run by medical practitioners who had lost their license to practice, former military corpsmen, or even veterinarians. Occasionally the 'doctor' might just be a proficient wannabe.

I followed his movement to a four-story walk-up on Kinkerstraat, where he fell into bed alone. I jumped ahead in time to the present, and he was still in the bed. I guess he'd whacked his face and head really hard and was trying to sleep off a monster headache. He might even have a concussion.

Deciding I had already spent too much time in the stall, I carefully put the gizmo away, flushed the toilet, and went through the pretense of zipping my pants as I opened the stall door and stepped out.

The same guy who had been using the washroom the last time I was there was here again on this occasion. That was an odd coincidence, and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, but he was just leaning on a sink, staring into the mirror with his back to me. That wasn't unusual; however, he wasn't staring at his face, he was staring at mine. That was also not unusual, but usually people would look at a stranger and then return their attention to themselves when eye contact was made. He didn't. As our eyes met, he straightened up quickly and began to turn while reaching into his buttoned jacket. Having just survived one assassination attempt, I assumed the worst. My reflexes kicked into high gear, and for the first time since the FBI Academy, I bent forward and rushed at someone like they were an offensive lineman on an opposing team. I reached him before he managed to pull the Beretta completely out. He might have made it if not for the silencer with its added length. Or it might have snagged on his waistband or jacket flap. It didn't matter which. All that mattered was that I hit him before he could bring the pistol to bear and fire.

I caught him in the midsection with my right shoulder. As we closed with the wall, I turned my head aside but continued my charge. My attack drove him backwards and upwards until he hit the wall just above the sink where he'd been standing. His head snapped backwards and I heard the sound of breaking glass as he impacted the mirror. I also heard the air whoosh out of his lungs.

Anyone who has ever had the wind knocked out of them knows that there are several seconds when they are virtually incapacitated as they struggle to refill empty lungs. As I backed off slightly, he plopped onto the sink. I didn't waste any time and wrestled the pistol out of his weakened grip before he could fully recover. With the pistol in my possession, I stepped back. I thought he was subdued. I was wrong.

As soon as he managed to draw a full breath, he jumped off the sink and swung a fist at my jaw. I sidestepped his punch and laid the gun's barrel across the right side of his head with a backhanded blow. Blood began to flow where I'd opened his scalp and he dropped to the floor like a rock as I stepped back again so he couldn't make a grab for the gun. To make sure the fight was over, I plopped onto his chest with my knees on his upper arms and stuck the muzzle of the pistol against the bottom of his nose and upper lip. He was dazed but not out, so I pushed the barrel upwards until he screamed. I probably had six inches and thirty pounds on the guy, so it may not have been a fair fight, but fairness in street fights is something I'd stopped worrying about as a kid. The only important thing was winning because the loser was often seriously maimed, or dead.

I had a chance to look at his face closely. He was neither one of the gang that had robbed the museum nor one of the people tailing me. I had only seen him once before, right here in this restroom.

My attacker began to squirm and I figured his next move would be an attempt to buck me off, so I pushed the pistol harder into his face. He screamed as the pain registered, and he stopped squirming. As he did, I eased the pressure on the pistol.

"Who are you?" I asked.

He grunted something in Dutch. I knew it wasn't his name, and from the sound I figured it was a profanity.

"Speak English," I ordered without any idea if he actually knew any English.

"American pig," he screamed. His accent sounded French, but one could never tell where or from whom a person had picked up a second language.

"Who are you?" I asked again, but he didn't say anything else, so I contorted my face and raised the pistol as if to whip him with it.

My assailant screamed when he saw what I seemed about to do. At that instant, a patron walked into restroom, saw the bloody face of the man under me, and ran yelling from the room. I knew I wouldn't have much more time, so I stuck the muzzle in the guy's face again and climbed off him. Once I was on my feet and out of kicking range, I signaled him to get up. I watched him carefully as he rolled over slowly and got to his knees, but he seemed to be cooperating.

What happened next was a blur. I saw the flash of chromed steel as the blade of a knife arced towards me, narrowly missing my chest as I jumped back out of its path. My longer arm length and the additional length of the silenced weapon served me well as I stayed out of his reach. When he slashed at me in a backhand move, I evaded the blade and brought the pistol barrel down on his head, hard. I was pissed and put plenty of strength into my counter attack. This time the guy collapsed to the floor and didn't move. The second gash to his head, this time on the left side, bled even more profusely than the first as he lay sprawled face down on the floor.

I bent over and felt his neck for a pulse. It seemed strong enough, but he wasn't going to be swinging any more knives for the next few hours. I had put enough force behind the second blow to definitely give him a concussion.

I kicked the blade away from where it had fallen, then turned him over and began to search his body for other weapons and documents as I should have done the first time I knocked him down. I found two other knives and a cell phone but no wallet, papers, or anything else.

Anticipating that we wouldn't be alone very much longer, I took out my ID wallet to wait.

"And you have no idea who this gunman is?" the police officer asked.

"None. I stepped out of the stall and he started to pull a gun. We fought, I got the gun away from him, and he went down when I backhanded a blow to his head. He was dazed for a few seconds, then jumped up and pulled a knife. He swung it at me and I hit him with the gun a second time. End of fight. That's all I know."

"I understand you were involved in an incident last evening just a few blocks from here."

"Yes. An apparent drunk driver came close to running me down."

"As I heard it, you dove into the canal to avoid being killed by someone driving a stolen car."

"I guess we won't know which version is correct until you catch the driver."

"Yes, that is true. I have also heard that you are here to investigate the art theft at the Amstelveen Museum. Do you think this incident and the one last evening might have something to do with your investigation?"

"I don't know, but this is my first time in Europe, so I doubt I had any enemies here before I arrived."

The medical people completed their preliminary examination and wheeled the gurney out of the restroom. My assailant, his head bandaged, was still out cold, but each arm was handcuffed to the frame of the metal stretcher and an officer accompanied him to the ambulance. The police officer taking my statement had the gun, three knives, and cell phone in plastic evidence bags.

"I guess that's all for now, Special Agent James. I'm sure someone else will be contacting you about the incident very soon."

"I'm available whenever you need me."

The police officer followed the rest of the people out of the restroom. I straightened my clothes and waited until the hotel people came in to clean up, expecting that any reporters might follow the cops out of the building as they tried to learn what had happened. Then I left as well. I decided not to go out just yet and instead headed back up to my suite. The hotel manager stepped into the elevator with me, and as the doors closed he turned towards me.

"Mr. James," he said, "on behalf of the hotel, I want to apologize most strongly. Since I became the manager here, no guest has ever been attacked in the hotel."

"I don't blame the hotel. Uh, was he a guest here?"

"No, and no one knows his name. He's come in several times to have a meal here and has also stayed to have a few drinks in the lounge. He always pays in cash."

"Well, I suppose the police will find out who he is."

"I can assure you that if he ever comes into the hotel again, he will not be welcome, and we will immediately summon the police."

I was peeling off my clothes and dropping them to the floor before I had even finished closing and locking the door. I hadn't come out of the fight unscathed. When I had driven my assailant into the wall, his gun had still been half inside his jacket. My right shoulder had hit it at midpoint and jammed it into his body while also jamming it into my shoulder. While it's true that I had some protection from the padding of my jacket and his, and that he had definitely gotten the worst of the deal, my shoulder ached nevertheless.

I turned on the water in the shower, adjusted it to as hot as I could stand it, then finished peeling off my clothes. A hot shower relaxed me like nothing else, and I couldn't wait to feel the spray on my shoulder.

As steam began to rise from the shower stall and fill the bathroom, I climbed in and stood spreadeagled against the shower wall with my head hung low. The water streaming down on the back of my head, my sore shoulder and torso splashed off like rain hitting a roof. This was my favorite thinking position, and I had a lot to think about. In less than twelve hours there had been two attempts on my life. If they had taken the direct approach on the first attempt and just shot me or stuck a knife in my chest, I probably wouldn't have survived. It would have been too unexpected. The second attempt had failed because my senses were on high alert, and I was vigilant for anything out of the ordinary. I wasn't going to assume that something suspicious was most likely innocuous. If that second attacker had only been pulling out a cell phone that was vibrating in his waistband, I would probably have been arranging for bail instead of standing in the shower, but I would gladly take that risk again if something similar happened.

Although I didn't want anyone else to know, I had learned almost nothing during my trips to the seamier places in Amsterdam. A few drunks had indicated the images I was showing looked familiar, but they would have agreed the sketches were good likenesses of their mothers if it got them a free drink. However, it would seem that I had made someone nervous. Perhaps having the world famous art recovery expert, Colton James, sniffing around in bars they frequented made them believe I was hot on their trail. They would have been right, of course, but not for the reasons they suspected.

I stayed in the shower until my fingers began to prune from the water, then reluctantly stepped out and toweled myself off. I felt better but only physically. I still had no idea how to wrap this case up, but I suspected I needed to wrap it up quickly or I'd be fighting off assailants until my luck ran out. In this game, I could only lose once.

Although I'd earlier been anxious to hit the streets again, I had lost interest in venturing out until I formulated a new plan. So after I dressed, I plopped onto the sofa and lost myself in my thoughts.

An hour later I had still not experienced the epiphany I'd hoped for when assuming the role of couch potato. Two important facts tainted everything else. One, someone urgently wanted me dead. And two, there seemed no way for me to learn who or exactly why without using the gizmo. I feared using it anywhere in my suite because there might be a dozen cameras hidden here. I needed a place where I could use the gizmo without worrying that anyone was watching. The downstairs lavatory by the bar was now definitely out— forever, so I needed a new place. The place also had to be relatively safe from attack. That would seem to rule out all of Amsterdam and perhaps all of the Netherlands.

Rising from the sofa, I walked to the desk and pulled out the map of Europe provided by the hotel. I wanted a city large enough to get lost in and not too close to Amsterdam. The latter ruled out Brussels. Paris would do nicely, as would Berlin. And although I didn't really want to leave the continent, Great Britain was an enticing destination. It would be nice to be somewhere where almost everyone spoke a language at least close to my American English while I tried to formulate a plan for wrapping up my investigation and keeping my health intact.

After a little more debate with myself and a glance through a number of travel brochures I'd picked up in the lobby of the hotel, I decided on London. I would travel by InterCity train to Rotterdam, then to Hoek of Holland on the local Sprinter train, followed by an overnight crossing on the Stena Line's luxury super-ferry to Harwich. A train to London would complete the journey.

Booking the trip online as a one-price fare, referred to as the Dutch Flyer train and Ferry ticket, would have been preferential, but I didn't want anyone to know what I was planning. Okay, I know that sounded super paranoid. But it was a fact that there had been two attempts on my life during the past twenty-four hours. I didn't yet know who was responsible, and I just didn't know who I could trust on this side of the Atlantic. I was beginning to believe I should have stayed on the American side of the pond.

I knew I would be less conspicuous traveling without a suitcase, but I would need several changes of clothes. I didn't want to think about clothes shopping in an unfamiliar city, so I took the smaller of my two cases. At the desk I told them I had left clothing and personal articles in my room and would return from Paris in a few days.

The doorman wanted to summon a cab for me but I declined. Someone might be out there waiting at a cab stand to pick me up should I leave the hotel. I wasn't going to allow myself to just fall into their hands, so I began walking north until I came to a taxi stand well away from the hotel.

The cab delivered me to the train station with time to spare. I had looked over my shoulder several times, but no one seemed to be following me. That made me wonder if there was a bug in my clothes that I hadn't located. I wished again that I had brought my portable electronic sweeping gear.

As I sat in the train station, I constantly scanned the area, looking for any familiar faces or simply anyone who seemed to have taken an interest in me. I saw no one I recognized, and everyone seemed to be concerned with their own problems or interests.

The trip to Hoek of Holland was, thankfully, uneventful, and at the Stena Line's terminal I purchased a ticket to Harwich. Since it was an overnight cruise, I booked a Comfort suite. It looked great in the brochure; it wasn't too small and it wasn't too large. As Goldilocks would say, "It was just right."

Passengers were already boarding and vehicles were being loaded into the belly of the ship, so I went aboard immediately and tracked down my cabin. It contained two single beds, and I was pleasantly surprised that it looked just as nice as the images in the brochure.

My stomach had been reminding me for several hours that I hadn't eaten since breakfast, so I headed up to the restaurant and enjoyed a delicious meal. So far the ship had earned five stars out of a possible five stars in my book, and we hadn't even left the port.

I was very anxious to get some information, so with my appetite sated, I headed back to my room. Once there, I wasted no time getting the gizmo up on the wall and operating.

The first thing I checked was the background of the assassin from the restroom. I tagged him, then went back to the day of the robbery and tried to match him up with the robbers. He never had face-to-face contact with any of them. So I went back to the day I'd arrived and watched his actions in a fast forward mode. I never saw him make personal contact with anyone, but he was in the hotel bar each time I used the restroom down there, and he had watched me come and go, including the one earlier encounter in the restroom where he had merely looked at me and left as I emerged from the stall. As I had discovered when I was trying to learn the names of the two smash-and-grab criminals in Boston, even with the gizmo and fast forward, this type of surveillance was extremely time consuming. I tracked him until after midnight my time and never learned his name. I knew where he was living and that he liked to wander around Amsterdam on his own, but his name eluded me.

The boat would dock early in the morning, so I needed to get some sleep. I turned off the gizmo, stored it in my dilapidated matchbox, and went into the bathroom to wash my face and brush my teeth. When I emerged from the bathroom, I was about to take off the shoulder holster when I heard a faint sound at my door. As I'd told Billy, whenever I heard a sound at home I grabbed my service weapon and waited to see if anyone tried to break in. The doors to the cabins aboard the ship were solid and no one was going to break them down without a fire axe, so whoever was outside my cabin must be trying to open the electronic lock. It could be a drunk who'd gotten the cabins mixed up, or it could be another attacker. I wished I hadn't turned off the gizmo because I could have used it to see into the corridor, and there might not be time to set up it back up at this point.

The room was arranged in a sort of 'L' configuration. Just inside the main door, the bathroom was on the right. This left the right-hand bed mostly out of sight, but the left-hand bed was fully exposed to the corridor doorway. I hurried over, pulled the covers back, and jammed the two pillows from the other bed under the top sheet. Then I pulled the covers back up, trying to make it appear that someone was sleeping there. I'd only had one light on— the one over the desk— so I turned that off. The only remaining light in the room was dim moonlight entering through the large porthole. As I stepped into the space by the bottom of the bed on the right with my back against the bathroom wall, I was hidden from the corridor doorway. I clicked off the safety on my Glock 23 and held it up by my head with my arm crooked at the elbow. We'd been taught never to put our finger on the trigger until we knew we were going to fire the weapon, but my finger was there now. If anyone managed to enter the cabin, I knew I was going to fire.

I worked to control my breathing as I waited and tried to predict every possible scenario. If it was a drunk outside my cabin, he'd never get in, and I could verify his identity later with the gizmo. If it was someone else, he might have enough sophistication and modern electronics to actually open the door. If he did, I was ready. The layout of the room was perfect for my needs except there were mirrors everywhere to make the space seem larger. I squeezed myself back into the corner as far as I could go to avoid having my reflection appear in the mirror over the desk.

The wait was agonizing. It may have only been a few minutes, but it seemed like an hour, and sweat was building on my forehead and running down my face. Was I scared? Absolutely. The previous two attempts had happened so fast that I had reacted with sheer instinct for self-preservation. This was different.

Suddenly I heard a noise from the door and light from the corridor streamed into the room, illuminating the 'sleeping' form. In quick succession, three shots from a silenced weapon struck the bed.

Chapter Nineteen

Faking a body in a bed was an old trick. I'd seen it used in numerous movies for decades. But it worked. The assassin's attention was on the bed as I pivoted to my left, stretched my arm around the corner of the bathroom wall and fired into the center of the form outlined in the doorway. I never hesitated. There wasn't time. My first shot came about a second after I had started to move, and the next two, coming in quick succession, took even less time than that.

The attacker, standing just inside the door, fell backwards when he was struck by the three forty-caliber slugs and landed in the corridor. I remained where I was. It felt like my heart was beating five hundred times a minute. It took a scream from the corridor to get me moving.

Although the attacker had been using a silenced weapon, they were never really as silent as seen in the movies, where there was only a slight 'pffft' sound. The noise made when firing an un-silenced high-caliber pistol was probably about one hundred sixty decibels. A silencer might reduce that noise by about thirty db, but in the dead of night it could sound like a sonic boom in this part of the ship. In the enclosed space of the cabin my un-silenced forty caliber sounded like a cannon going off. My ears were ringing.

I went to the doorway, never taking my eyes off my attacker. If he was wearing a vest, he would be plenty sore but might not be seriously injured, if a few broken ribs weren't counted as serious. My weapon remained pointed at him every second as I got closer, but he never moved, and a pool of bright crimson was slowly expanding on the carpet around his form.

Upon reaching the door, I paused for a second, then stuck my head out quickly and just as quickly pulled it back in. All I'd seen to the right was an elderly couple peering from their doorway. I did the same to the left and saw some faces peering out of doorways but no signs of imminent danger.

I held my arm out into the corridor and flashed my open ID wallet in both directions, saying loudly, "Politie. Police. Remain in your cabins, please, and close the doors." I didn't have a clue what to do next. I was afraid to step into the corridor, fearing that an accomplice of the man I'd shot was standing inside one of the other cabins just waiting for me to expose myself.

As I stood there, I heard the sounds of running feet getting closer in the corridor. I put my finger on the trigger guard so I didn't accidentally shoot an innocent and swung my arm out the door and to the left as I peered out. Two men in white uniforms almost fell trying to stop. They were ship employees, so I lowered my weapon. They paused for second, raising their arms as they slowly walked closer.

"Politie. Police," I said as I exposed myself a bit more and flashed my ID.

They seemed to breathe a bit easier and lowered their hands as they moved forward.

The older of the two said, "Did you shoot this man?"

While thinking that had to be the dumbest question put to me in a long time, I nodded.

"May I see your ID again?"

I held open the wallet so he could read the information.


"Yes. I'm working on a case with the Dutch National Police and Interpol. This man broke into my cabin and attempted to kill me."

As we talked, several more ship employees arrived, including one who appeared to be an officer, and people began to open their doors again and peer out.

"What's happened here?" the officer asked in English. I was still holding my service weapon on my right hand, and the attacker's weapon was near his right hand, so it should have been obvious, but I guess he needed to ask.

"A man broke into my cabin and attempted to kill me," I said. "He lost." To punctuate my statement, I held up my ID.

"You're FBI?"

I nodded. "I'm working on an art theft case with Interpol and the Netherlands DNR."

"Do you know this man?" he asked, pointing to the body on the floor. It was pretty clear from the holes in his chest and the blood that he was dead.

"I believe he's the same one who tried to kill me yesterday in Amsterdam. He got away then. May I suggest you have a photographer come down here and take pictures of the scene? I also suggest you have your chief medical person check the body just to certify he's dead for the death certificate."

The officer looked at me for a second, then nodded to one of the other men, who turned and hurried down the corridor.

The officer bent to retrieve the weapon off the deck, and I shouted, "Don't!"

He stopped, stood up, and looked at me.

"We must preserve the crime scene until the photographer has taken some pictures," I said.

"Ah, of course. Sorry. It's my first murder, Special Agent James."

"It's not a murder. It was self-defense."

"Of course. I should have said my first violent death aboard ship. Are you taking charge of this investigation, sir?"

"Since I was involved, that wouldn't be appropriate. If you'll contact your company in the UK and ask them to alert the authorities, we'll let them handle the investigation when we dock. We'll have the crime scene photos to show what happened. Make sure your photographer takes pictures of that electronic device in the key card lock on my door and the damage to the unused bed where the attacker thought I was sleeping. Then I suggest you question the people who have cabins in this corridor and take statements about what they saw and heard. Once the doctor has examined the body, you can remove it and clean the mess as best you can."

"Yes, of course. Ah, here's our photographer and doctor now."

I glanced down the corridor and saw them coming towards us on the run. I stepped back out the way and watched as first the photographer did his job and then the doctor examined the body. The adrenaline was wearing off and I was feeling extremely tired, so I holstered my weapon and went to splash some cold water on my face.

As I stepped out of the bathroom after drying my face, the photographer asked from the corridor, "The first officer says there's some damage to your bed, sir?"

"Come in. It's the bed on the left."

The young man took a couple of pictures of the bed as it was, then I peeled back the covers so the damage underneath was visible. He whistled when he saw the holes and looked at me for a second, then at my weapon, then back at the bed. Since he was using a digital camera, there was no waste of film, so he shot with abandon. After the bed, he took a dozen pictures of the rest of the room. When he was done, he nodded to me and left.

The doctor had completed his examination, and two men had lifted the body onto a sheet of heavy plastic before placing it onto a stretcher so it could be carried to— wherever— without dripping blood along the way. The first officer had the assassin's pistol, several spent cartridges, and the electronic card lock override device. My own brass was still on the floor of my cabin.

"Special Agent James, the local police will no doubt wish to speak with you as soon as we dock. Please remain in or near your cabin after you hear the morning wakeup call."

"Of course, First Officer."

"Would you like me to arrange for another cabin for you?"

"That's not necessary. The second bed will be fine."

"I'm sorry this happened aboard our ship."

"It's certainly not the fault of the line or any of the crew. In law enforcement, we never know when or where killers will strike."

"I'm glad I don't have your job. My job is exciting enough on those occasions when we have to fight the weather. Mother Nature can be vicious, but at least I know she's not specifically after me."

"There's danger in most professions. Thank you for your understanding tonight."

"Goodnight, sir."

"Goodnight, First Officer."

I was beat. The day's activities had taken about everything I had. But after closing and locking the door, I took out my small kit, cleaned my Glock at the desk, and refilled the magazine. With that done, I stripped down and slid into the second bed. I was asleep in minutes.

I didn't want to get up when the wakeup call came, but like everyone else aboard, I had to. I hoped a hot shower would finish the job of waking me.

I did feel better after a shower, but I still wanted more sleep. Working at home as an author had its advantages. As a self-employed person, I had to be able to work without supervision, but I got to establish my own hours. I could work all night and then sleep all day if I chose. But when I had to function or interact with people or businesses with tightly scheduled hours each day, I had to adapt to them. I couldn't wait to wrap this case up and go home, if I lived long enough to get home.

The Stena Line provided coffee and complementary fruit in the cabin, so after dressing I partook of both. I was finishing my second cup of coffee when I heard a knock at the door.

There was no peephole in the door, so I opened it cautiously, using my foot in an effort to make sure it couldn't open further than I intended until I knew who was knocking.

"Special Agent James?" one of the two men asked.

At first glance, I knew they were cops, so I said, "I'm James." I opened the door fully.

"May I see your ID?"

"May I see yours?" I asked.

"Sorry. I'm Williams of NCA. This is Medcroft." Williams held up his ID. "We're here about the shooting on the North Sea."

I held up my own ID and Williams studied it for a couple of seconds, then looked me in the face again.

"Thank you. May we come in?"

"Of course," I said, pulling the door fully open and stepping back out of the way.

The two men walked in and straight to the bed that had been shot up.

"Good thing you weren't in that bed."

"I was over there," I said, pointing to the area at the bottom of the other bed.

"You knew he was coming?"

"No. I heard a slight noise at the door, and then again a minute or so later. There had already been two attempts on my life in the past twenty-four hours, so I was on high alert. I threw the pillows under the covers to make it look like I was sleeping in that bed, turned off the lights, then moved over behind the bathroom with my weapon at the ready." I moved over to the place I had waited to demonstrate. "The killer finally got the door open, stepped into the room and fired three times into the dummy form. I swung my arm around the wall here and put three slugs into his body. It knocked him back into the corridor. He never moved again. End of story."

"Had you ever seen him before?"

"I think he might have been the one who tried to run me down in Amsterdam. He has a stitched up wound on his forehead. Witnesses said that after the car missed me and hit a tree, the driver got out, holding his head. The windshield was cracked, and there was blood on the ground by the open car door. The car's air bags never deployed. I imagine the Dutch police took a sample of the blood on the ground following the crash so a DNA analysis of that and the dead man's blood should tell the story."

"The doctor transmitted the dead man's prints, and they were run through Interpol. He was wanted for questioning in connection with three violent deaths— one in France, one in Germany, and one in Italy. We don't doubt that everything occurred just as you said. Where are you staying in the UK?"

"Somewhere in London. I haven't selected a hotel yet. I just had to get out of Amsterdam for a few days and think things out. It had suddenly gotten very dangerous there."

"I hope there aren't any others following you."

"You and me both. I was very careful and still never spotted this guy on my tail. I'm beginning to wonder if someone bugged my clothes or suitcase. Do you know of a good electronics specialist in London?"

"It so happens I do." Williams wrote a name and address on a piece of notepaper on the desk and handed it to me. "He's one of the best. Used to be with our lot until he retired. He'll be able to sweep your clothes to see if you've been bugged."


"Ambrose gave me your cell number. Is it still good?"

"Yes. I keep it in a special case so it can't be tracked. Just leave a message and I'll call you back when I check my messages."

"Then we're done here. We'll be in touch. Watch your back, James. It seems someone's painted a target on it."

Harwich seemed like a nice community, and I briefly considered finding lodging there instead of continuing on to London, but if I really wanted to get lost, London would be the place. The first time I used my cell, someone could pinpoint my basic location, and then it would be all too easy to find me if I stayed in Harwich. In London, it could be impossible to find me even if they knew the neighborhood where I was staying.

The train to London arrived at the Liverpool Street station in less than two hours. There was a Burger King concession on the way out of the terminal, so I grabbed something to eat before taking a taxi to a B&B in Kensington. I had found the listing on the internet and I hadn't made a reservation, but since it was off season, they had rooms available. I got a very nice double with an en suite bathroom at a very reasonable price. It was quiet and there was free wifi, so I had everything I needed.

After settling in, I left to find the electronics specialist recommended by Williams. I'd expected a business location, but the address he'd provided was a two-story residence in Southfields. I rang the bell, then announced my name and law enforcement association when a voice on an intercom grilled me about my business there. When the door buzzed, I pushed it open and was greeted by a wiry-looking man whom I suspected was in his early seventies. He sized me up immediately.

"Yank cop?"

"FBI. Williams of NCA sent me…" I stopped talking when he put a finger to his lips.

"Follow me," he said as he turned and walked towards the back of the house.

The room he led me to had probably been a kitchen at one time, but now it looked like an electronics lab. The windows had been covered over, and without the overhead lights and the lights from the instruments and equipment, it would probably have been pitch black in there.

He stepped back out of the way after entering the room and waited until I was in before pushing the door tightly closed. After moving to the center of the room, he turned to face me. "I'm Peter Watson," he said. "It's safe to talk in here. No signal can get out. Why did my friend Williams send you to me?"

"I'm Colton James. There have been three attempts on my life during the past two days. After the second, I decided to get out of Amsterdam for a while. The third attempt took place on the ferry to Harwich. He won't be coming at me again, but I had been very careful and hadn't seen anyone tailing me, so I don't know how he found me. I think I might be bugged. When I arrived at Amsterdam, Customs officials put five bugs in my clothes. I found them and removed them, but now I think there might be more."

"Customs officials?"

"No doubt about that. They were the only ones with the time and access to my things after I deplaned."

Watson chuckled. "I've heard rumors that crime organizations had made some inroads into the Customs ranks over there, but no one has been able to prove anything yet."

"I thought the bugs might have been planted on orders from the Dienst Nationale Recherche, but now…" I shrugged.

Watson smiled and walked to a bench where he picked up a piece of equipment that looked like a TV remote control. Returning to me, he started at my feet and worked his way upward on my right side. When he reached my belt, the device chirped.

"Take off your belt," he said.

After I had removed my belt and handed it to him so he could place it on a workbench, he started over. This time he made it all the way to the top of my head without the device making a sound, then scanned me again by slowly moving the control down my left side to my feet.

He returned the device to the workbench, then took my belt to another workbench where he examined it under a bright light.

"Come over here," he said. When I had, he pointed to a seam. "The belt is two pieces of leather stitched together, but here— " he said, pointing— "the seam is glued." Taking a razor knife with a fine point, he cut through the seam. A second later he was studying a small, flat electronic bug under a microscope. "I've seen these before. They're made for the French government, but you can buy them on the black market if you have enough Euros." He applied a narrow line of glue and sealed the hole in the belt's seam, then took the belt to where the detection device sat on a workbench. The unit never made a peep as he held the belt out and ran the controller up and down the entire length. Handing the belt back to me, he said, "You're clean, Yank," as he dropped the bug into a small metal container that would block its outgoing signal.

"Thanks. That bug is pretty small. What do you think the range might be?"

"Certainly no more than a hundred meters."

"This sweep cleans me as I stand here but doesn't clear my other clothes and suitcase. Can I purchase one of those devices from you or someone else?"

"I make these myself, so they're not available elsewhere. I do sell them, but the price is pretty steep. Your government didn't want to buy them."

"My life is very precious to me. I'd like to purchase one. How do they do against wired devices?"

"They detect all disturbances in electromagnetic fields, such as from transmitters and receivers. The loudness of the chirp tells you how powerful the disturbance is. Naturally, wireless devices create a far larger disturbance. There's a sensitivity adjustment because there are usually electromagnetic disturbances all around us. Not in here, of course, but in most other places. So you adjust the sensitivity setting as far from potential disturbances as possible while remaining in the same general environment. You might do it in the center of a room, for example, if you're reasonably sure there are no bugs overhead or underfoot."

"Do these devices detect hidden cameras?"

"Of course. A camera creates a much higher disturbance than a locator beacon."

"I'll take one."

"I haven't told you the price yet."

"Williams trusts you, so I'm confident you won't take advantage. And if it works as well as you claim, I'll make a recommendation that the Bureau throw some business your way."

Finding the tiny transmitter in my belt had been an eye opener. I knew it hadn't been there when I left New York and hadn't been put there by the Customs officials, so it had to be someone else. It must have been put into the belt by the hotel maid. I wondered who she was working for. But then I realized it could have been done when I sent my clothes out to be cleaned after my swim in the canal.

I'd known when I accepted the invitation to come to Amsterdam that things would be difficult, but I had never anticipated the kinds of problems I was encountering. I should have expected it, though. They don't pay five million dollars for a walk in the park. There were a lot of interested groups involved, and each had their own agenda. I only knew of the ones who had announced themselves. My reputation could be the problem because other people seeking the recovery might believe that watching me could allow them to swoop in and grab the prize before I claimed it. I believed only one group was trying to kill me. Anyone hoping that I would lead them to the art would at least wait until I located it.

On the way back to the B&B, I stopped and picked up two take-out meals. The first was a fish-and-chips dinner that I would enjoy for lunch, and the second was an English Cottage Pie. The pie was made from ground beef, potatoes, cheese, and vegetables. It would be cold by dinnertime, but the B&B had a microwave available for guest use. The pie looked and smelled so wonderful that I considered eating that for lunch, but by dinnertime the fish and chips might be ruined.

My first job was to use the bug detector on the rest of my clothes and my suitcase. I found another of the bugs in my other belt and removed it, but I wondered if it was already too late. If the maximum range was a hundred meters and the killer presently resting in someone's morgue had been the only one on my trail, then I should be okay now that the second bug was in the metal case Watson had given me with the device. Still, I would have to keep a wary eye out for tails every time I left the B&B. I also performed a full sweep of the room and bath. I got a hit on the TV and clock radio, but the signal died when I unplugged them. I assumed the electromagnetic variation was only part of their normal operation.

Knowing, or at least hoping, that the room was now clean, I placed a chair near the wall and put the gizmo up where I could reach it easily. Tracking someone to learn their name or motives without audio was a real time killer, but it was necessary.

I started viewing from the point where the killer had gone to bed at his home after the minor surgery to his head and fast forwarded until he woke up. The first thing he did after waking up was to look at the clock. Then he picked up his phone. I thought it was to place a call, but it was to receive one. He spoke for less than a minute, then put the phone down and got out of bed.

After a quick shower, the killer, whose name I still didn't know, dressed quickly and left the house. I wasn't surprised when I saw him board the same train I was taking to Rotterdam. He never looked for me, but he didn't have to. He had a spotter. Just before stepping into the train car, he nodded almost imperceptibly to another man on the platform, and the man nodded back. I supposed the other man could merely be an acquaintance, but I didn't believe that for a second.

After the killer was aboard the train, the spotter turned and left the platform. I moved the view inside the car so I could keep my eyes on the killer. He looked out the window, probably to see if I got off the train, until it started to move. Once we were clipping along, he closed his eyes and appeared to be sleeping.

When we reached Rotterdam, my tail took out a device that looked like a smartphone and watched the tiny screen as he walked. I guess that meant he was following along by using the electronic bug in my belt. He never got so close that I'd notice him. He'd spoken on his phone three times after boarding the train in Amsterdam, so I guess he was keeping his associates apprised of our travel. After boarding the ferry to Harwich, my tail met another man who handed him a small case.

The killer hadn't taken a cabin on the ferry. He simply sat in one of the lounges until it was time to go to my cabin. In one of the corridors along the way, he paused to screw the silencer onto a 9mm pistol. Both pieces had been in the small case passed to him. The only other thing in the case was the electronic device he had used to open my door. The thieves had managed to override the alarm system at the museum, so either one of them was an electronics genius or they had access to someone who was. I made a note to find out which.

I watched as the killer entered my room and put three rounds into the dummy shape. Then I saw my arm flash out and fire three rounds into the killer. As he fell backward, he passed through the gizmo's window, but I'd seen enough, so I returned to his room in Amsterdam and tried to learn his name.

I couldn't open drawers, and it was too dark inside to see anything while they were closed, so I examined every inch of the room for any correspondence. I found nothing that had a name on it. There was no name on the entrance door and no name on the doorbell. I knew it was time to move on. I would learn his name from the NCA or Interpol.

My stomach growled, reminding me that I'd bought fish and chips for lunch, so I spread out the paper bag used to hold the food and prepared to dig in. But before I started to eat, I called up the robbery on the gizmo so I could watch it as I chowed down. I was hoping I'd spot something I had missed earlier.

Chapter Twenty

I'd been frustrated when working the Boston case, but that was nothing compared to the frustration I felt on this case. Immediately following the robbery, the thieves split up and most never met their fellow gang members again. They hardly seemed like a gang at all. The one whom I thought of as the ringleader, and one other, had driven the stolen artwork to Madrid and stashed it in a small warehouse where a storeroom the size of a large closet had been prepared. It had temperature and humidity control to preserve the fifty million dollars in artwork and was protected by a recycled safe door that appeared able to withstand an assault by a mortar team. It looked every bit as impregnable as some bank vaults. I added the address of the warehouse to my notes.

I wanted to prepare a report showing the location of the artwork while naming the thieves, but I couldn't name even one of them yet, much less explain how I'd gotten the information about the location of the warehouse. I was pinning a lot of hope on the blood recovered at the museum to open a new lead I could exploit.

I never left the B&B again except for meals and to call Kathy. I didn't have a specific place from which to call, so I moved around. The important thing was that it be remote enough from my sleeping accommodations that no one could pinpoint the B&B when I removed my cell phone from its special case.

Kathy hadn't heard about the ferry attack, and I didn't tell her. If she had known, she'd have been on me to take the next plane home each time we talked.

I spent a full day watching the gang members in fast forward mode and trying to learn their names. They spent a lot of time on the phone, and I imagined they were keeping in touch that way instead of having face-to-face meetings, which would have established their association to any observers. Without audio, observing phone conversations offered no help to me. I probably wouldn't have been able to understand what they were saying anyway. They also watched a lot of sports on television, and exhibited surprising self-discipline by drinking only lightly as they hung around in taverns. I wondered if they were waiting for the insurance company to pay the claim before they came out of hiding.

I spent the last of my planned days in London with the group's ringleader, watching him for anything I could use. I had to view him in fast forward because I couldn't spend months watching his minute to minute activity from the time I felt he might have begun planning the job. I made a note of every contact he made that appeared suspicious, although I didn't know who the contact was or why he was meeting them. But I was afraid I was going to miss something because I had to skip over so many hours, such as when he went to bed. I just had to hope he hadn't gotten up in the middle of the night and gone out, returning before I picked him up again in the morning.

At the end of my last day in London, I had a difficult decision to make. I could return to Amsterdam as planned or extend my stay in London. I knew I couldn't use the gizmo in Amsterdam unless I moved to another hotel, and my safety was in question no matter where I went in the Netherlands. Returning before I knew the whole score would merely expose me as a target to the people trying to kill me. I decided to remain in London until I had learned everything possible from the gizmo.

If I were to make a break in the case, I really felt it would come from watching the ringleader, so I stayed on him for a fourth day. Seven months prior to the crime, I thought I saw something that might be important. I went to the bathroom and washed my face with cold water before returning to view it again.

Back at the gizmo, I reset the time and watched the scene in normal time from multiple angles. And there it was— the connection I'd been searching for. The ringleader made definite contact with the one person who, more than any other, gave the thieves the ability to pull off an almost perfect robbery. I still didn't know the names of the gang members or how I was going to explain my knowledge of it, but this new information might enable me to tie everything together and close the case.

For all of my life, the person I'd always gotten most upset with was myself. When something important completely escaped my attention and later appeared to have been as obvious as the fingers on my right hand, such as when I failed to view the building explosion early on while trying to learn where the gizmo had come from, I scolded myself for my stupidity. In this case, I suddenly realized that learning the names of the gang members should be the simplest thing in the world. I berated myself for not having thought of using this technique with the Boston gang. I had been looking over their shoulders at mail and such to learn their identities when all I had to do was tag each of the gang members, then travel back to when they were in grade school and look over their shoulders as they took a test or filled out some papers. If that didn't work, I could follow them home and probably find something at their parent's house. Or, easier yet, I could simply go back to the day they were born and read the names off their birth certificates. I decided that last idea would be the most foolproof method, so I took a deep breath, stopped silently rebuking myself, and got down to work.

Within a few hours, I had identified all of the gang members. Or perhaps I should say I had the names associated with them at birth. Some might be using aliases or their names could have changed, such as through adoption or simply to hide their past. But I also had their exact ages. I figured that if I had their childhood name and date of birth, the rest could be learned from one of the criminal databases. This simple method for learning identities would no doubt save me countless hours of search time in the future.

I hesitated to use my access privileges to the FBI database for a personal case, but Interpol had requested their assistance— and it might help solve a major crime. It wasn't like I was using it for ulterior purposes. And if the FBI wanted to claim the case had been solved through their participation, I had no problem with that. They could have every last bit of the credit as long I got the offered reward for the recovery as per my agreement with the Bureau.

When accessing the Bureau's computer system, I wasn't limited to the FBI data files. Their systems were tied into Interpol and other criminal databases around the world. I set up access using the highly secure logon procedure and requested criminal history information from all sources on the names I'd learned earlier. Within seconds, data began flowing into my laptop computer as the Bureau's computer system filled my download request. When the computer signaled that the download was complete, I logged off and accessed the copies of the files now in my computer.

Of the six names I had entered, I had the criminal histories for five. The sixth wasn't recognized by the system, so either he had never committed a crime anywhere, or his childhood name had never been entered into any file. But at least I had histories for five.

As I read through their criminal pasts, I knew I had identified the five correctly, but I also knew that only the gizmo would help me learn why there was nothing on the sixth. He was the one who'd driven the getaway van and the one who had remained on watch. Perhaps more importantly, he was the one with the Uzi while the others appeared to be unarmed. It could be that he was new to crime and had simply never been arrested. Somehow I had to make sure I had identified his name correctly.

As I watched the sixth gang member from the time he completed his schooling, I saw a classic case of someone falling in with the wrong sort of friends. He graduated from minor incidents of vandalism to drinking, drugs, and street brawls, then finally theft. At first he would break into cars to steal contents, then began stealing the cars themselves. With each successful theft he grew more emboldened, vicious, and reckless. Following the theft of a truck filled with electronics as part of a small gang, he had purchased a handgun. He practiced with it in remote areas until he was fairly proficient. Following a later robbery where his share of the loot had been substantial, he purchased an Uzi. I didn't know if it was the same one he'd used during the Amsterdam robbery, but it didn't matter. The expression on his face when he practiced with the submachine gun indicated, at least to me, that he couldn't wait for a good opportunity to use it on someone. Of all the members of the robbery gang, he seemed the most dangerous by far. But despite his apparent desire to inflict harm on others, he had restrained himself so far and was smart enough to avoid arrest.

Although the other gang members hadn't appeared to be armed during the robbery, I realized as I watched them that several had handguns and assorted weapons at their homes. The police could be up against it if they had to take them down while they were home.

It took me another full day, but I finally confirmed the sixth member was using his birth name. He tried to cash a check, and used his driver's license as proof of identity. I was able to see his name clearly as the clerk copied the license information into her computer terminal.

I stayed in London for another week, piecing together the story of the gang's preparation for the crime and then preparing my report. My report was encrypted in my computer so no one could access it without the decryption key. I had called the hotel in Amsterdam to make sure they were holding my room and then called the principals in the case to assure them I was still engaged in my investigation.

Once I felt I had learned everything I possibly could from the gizmo, I took the nine-seventeen Eurostar train at London St. Pancras Int'l to Paris Nord, then the TGV Duplex from Paris Gare de Lyon to Barcelona Sants. From Barcelona, the AVE high-speed train got me to Madrid Atocha just after midnight. I had made a reservation at a clean, nondescript hotel not far from the warehouse where the artwork was stored and was able to check in despite the late hour because I had paid in advance.

I did a little sightseeing the first day I was there and then settled down to work. A small restaurante a block off the Calle de Santa Engracia provided a great view of all doors into the warehouse where the stolen artwork was stored. I parked myself at a small table from which I could observe and ordered a coffee to enjoy while I read an English language newspaper. I knew the gang members never visited the warehouse, but I was hoping they had made arrangements with someone to notify them if they saw someone watching the building. So I made my observation obvious. Whenever someone walked past the warehouse or parked their vehicle near it, I put the paper down slightly and watched intently, trying to be obvious but not so much that it was apparent it was an act. I drank coffee all day, and when I paid the bill I gave the waiter triple the usual tip because I hadn't ordered a meal. It would also serve to make me stand out in his mind should anyone ask about me. I stayed there during all of their open hours for four days, then hung around by the curbside until the staff left for the night. Then I moved to another restaurante up the street for several more days.

After a full week of watching the warehouse, I'd begun to believe it had been a wasted effort. My hope that someone in the area might have been paid to report anything suspicious, and that it might bring one of the gang members to check or perhaps get them to move the artwork, seemed to be a flop, but I certainly wasn't prepared for what happened when I did get a reaction to my presence.

It was just after three in the afternoon and I was feeling a little drowsy from having been sitting at the same small table for over six hours when I heard a noise from an entrance door that opened onto a side street. When I glanced over I saw a face I had first seen in a washroom mirror in Amsterdam. As on that occasion, the face was staring at me, but this time there was venom in his eyes. He was still at least six meters from me when he pulled open his coat and began to draw a pistol. There was no chance I could get to him before it cleared his belt, so I threw myself from my chair to get below the surface level of mine and the surrounding tables. I hoped I would be partially, if not completely, hidden from his view.

It was immediately obvious as he raised the pistol and fired that there was no silencer on his weapon this time. The noise in the restaurante was deafening, but it failed to completely cover the screams of the patrons. His first shot struck the surface of a table, but I felt a burning sensation in my left arm as I heard a second shot. His next two shots hit a table and a chair respectively.

I had pulled my Glock 23 as I dove for the floor, but I got tangled up with the overturned chair I'd been sitting in. This prevented me from firing immediately, and I felt pain in my right leg as my attacker fired for a fifth time. The tables were pretty close together where I’d been sitting, and he had been moving steadily closer to get a clear shot as he fired. I kicked the chair away from me so I could maneuver a little, and it apparently startled him because he jumped slightly backward and fired twice more. The two shots went wild, with one hitting a table, and the other striking a wall. Moving to my right to get an unobstructed view, I fired a three-shot burst from no more than four meters away.

It was far from an ideal firing position, so I hadn't managed to put any rounds into his torso, but one round caught him in the right shoulder and spun him partly around. More importantly, he dropped the pistol. But as I'd learned in the washroom, this guy didn't know when to call it a day.

As I tried to rise up, he bent over and picked up the gun with his left hand. I didn't know how proficient he might be with his left, and had no intention of finding out if I could avoid it. I achieved a kneeling position during the interruption in shooting and got off two rounds in quick succession before he managed to bring his pistol to bear. The first slug hit right of center in his chest, and he staggered backwards a step. The second entered his throat where the base of his neck met the rest of his spine. I guess one or more of his carotid arteries had been opened because blood began gushing like an oil well that had just 'come in.' He didn't collapse as one might expect; rather, his body went rigid and he toppled over backwards stiffly, like one of the flat steel targets at the Quantico outdoor shooting range.

I knew from the way blood was pouring from the body and the way he had fallen that the shooting was over, as long as he didn't have any associates with him. I scanned the faces of the other people in the restaurante, looking for any that weren't reflecting fear and horror. I didn't see any. The other patrons knew the washroom attacker had shot first, but they didn't know if I was going to start shooting them now, so I took out my ID wallet with my badge and held it open for all to see as I said, very loudly, "Policia."

It seemed to calm them enough that the women began weeping now that the shooting was over. No one other than the washroom attacker and me appeared to have been hit. There didn't appear to be any accomplices, so I looked to my wounds.

I righted the chair I had been sitting in before the shooting started and sat down as people stared at me and the body on the floor in horror. My right leg was bleeding, so I pulled up my right pant leg, which exposed my ankle holster to view, but by then everyone knew I was armed. I heard sirens approaching in the distance, so I guess the business owner, or perhaps a neighbor, had called them. But it could have even been one of the other patrons. It seemed that everyone had a cell phone these days.

The attacker's bullet had ripped open a furrow along the outside calf. It hurt like hell, but I didn't believe it was life-threatening unless I didn't stop the flow of blood. I used the cloth napkin from the table to act as a temporary tourniquet.

The news was better when I removed my jacket and examined the injury there. The attacker's slug had scraped along my bicep, but it wasn't bleeding heavily. Overall, I wasn't in bad shape. I knew I'd been lucky once again. But how many times could I be lucky before my luck ran out?

The art thieves obviously wanted me dead, so I wasn't going to play along anymore. I had all the facts. I knew who was involved and where the artwork was located. I might not have any solid evidence to prove how I knew what I knew, so I was going to use the old I-can't-reveal-my-sources excuse. It would be up to the police to make the case against the thieves. I just wanted to go home.

The first responder to the phoned-in reports of a gunfight in the restaurante was a police vehicle. The cops stopped on either side of the front entrance and peered inside. The other patrons had meanwhile moved towards the back of the restaurante. I was sitting alone in the front where I'd been since I'd established my stakeout. The washroom attacker was on the floor halfway between the front door and the side door. I held up my ID wallet containing my badge and ID, the Netherlands firearms permit, and the EFP with my left hand, raised my empty right hand, and said "Policia."

The two policemen entered cautiously with guns drawn. I appeared to be the only threat, so they were both aiming at me. I didn't move. I didn't want any accidents.

One of the cops took my ID wallet and examined it, then looked at me and said, "American?"

I nodded. "Yes, I'm investigating the robbery in the Amstelveen Museum. My investigation led me here. That man on the floor burst in and tried to kill me."

The cop lowered his weapon but didn't holster it as he handed me back my ID wallet. He nodded to his partner who went to check on my attacker.

Looking down at my leg and then at my shoulder, the first cop said, "An ambulance is coming."

Two more police cars screeched to a halt and their occupants hurried into the restaurante with weapons drawn. After learning the situation, they began interviewing the other patrons and taking basic statements. I breathed a sigh of relief that the worst was over.

An hour later, the body had been removed and the witnesses had been allowed to leave after being interviewed. My leg and shoulder had been tended to, at least so far as emergency care was concerned, and the ambulance driver had given me something for the pain. Because I was a foreigner who had just been involved in a deadly shootout, and my injuries weren't life threatening, the cops refused to let the ambulance take me to the hospital. I was told I had to wait until a senior detective arrived on the scene. At least the ambulance attendants had been allowed to stop the flow of blood and bandage the leg. They suggested I visit a hospital as soon as possible to get my leg stitched up. I thanked them and told them I would.

When a detective sergeant and his partner finally arrived, I went through my story about staking out the warehouse for a week until I was attacked by the same man who had attacked me in Amsterdam. I told the detectives that I believed the stolen artwork was in the warehouse across the street.

After I had related my story, the detective sergeant, Jorge Luis Grenzner by name, made several calls. Although he had spoken excellent English with me, he spoke in Spanish on the phone, so I didn't understand most of what he said except when he mentioned my name. He came back and sat down next to me after he was done.

"Your story checks out, Special Agent James. The man who tried to kill you here today is in fact the same one who tried in Amsterdam. He escaped from police custody while in the hospital there. How he found you, we don't know, unless it is as you say that the warehouse is being used by the art thieves and they had someone watching to see if anyone showed any undue interest in it. My captain is trying to arrange for permission to search the warehouse for the stolen artwork. We should know shortly if it will be granted. Your reputation as a recovery expert with a flawless record will no doubt weigh heavily in our favor."

It was two more hours before the police captain arrived with a group of officials, probably police, and a herd of newspaper reporters. He never bothered to interview me; he simply went to the warehouse with several of his people and watched as two police officers broke in.

Twenty minutes later, the police officials exited the building. As they were giving their statements to the press, the detective I had spoken with came to me and said, "Sorry, no artwork was found. You were mistaken."

"No," I said, "you simply didn't look in the right place. It's in there. May I go in now?"

"No. You have no legal rights of search and seizure in this country. My captain will not allow you to enter the premises under a search warrant issued by a Spanish magistrate."

"What are you hiding?"


"I said, what are you hiding? And I should also ask why you're hiding it."

Grenzner bristled at my questions. "Special Agent James, you are a guest in this country and have just killed a man. I would advise you to remember that."

"I defended my life after being attacked without provocation in your country. And I won't be here for long, Detective Sergeant. If I'm free to go, I'll be returning to Amsterdam after I have a doctor see to my injury. Uh, by the way, how long did it take you to break into the vault?"

"I have no idea what you are talking about. And you will remain in Madrid for the time being until the investigation regarding this purported attack is complete."

"Purported? How many eye witnesses does it take for the report of an attack to be considered authentic?"

"The validity of all attack reports are questionable until our police captain decides otherwise."

"I see. Very well, then. Am I free to visit a hospital and have my injuries attended to properly? All I've received so far is emergency care, and my leg is throbbing with pain."

"I'll have someone take you to the nearest hospital," he said as he waved to a policeman and gave him instructions in Spanish. "Don't leave the city until you are told it's permissible."

Several hours later my leg had been stitched up. I left the hospital, hailed a cab, and was taken back to my hotel. I wanted to use the gizmo to view the interior of the warehouse as the police entered, but I abstained for two reasons. One was that I was feeling a little sleepy, probably from the painkillers and medications I had been given, and second because I didn't know if anyone had entered my room in my absence. I had naturally told the police where I was staying. Someone could have planted bugs or even a miniature camera, and I didn't have the energy to perform a sweep.

So I undressed, climbed carefully into bed, and went to sleep.

In the morning, I felt a little better in some ways and worse in others. I had gotten enough rest that I didn't feel tired, but my leg was throbbing and my shoulder was stiff. Immediately after using the bathroom, I dug out the pills I'd been given and popped the recommended dosage. Then I returned to bed and just laid there until they began to take effect. To occupy my mind, I thought about the situation at the warehouse. I had confirmed that the artwork was there when I arrived in Madrid, but it's possible it had been moved once I started the stakeout. I had only been watching during the day because I was there to be seen rather than to see. My stakeout had worked, but I hadn't quite anticipated the results I'd achieved. I hadn't really known what to expect, but a shootout in a restaurante during afternoon hours wasn't it.

And now I was out of the loop. I suspected the Spanish police had the artwork and that they would conveniently discover it somewhere else in the near future. It's tough to lose five million dollars under such circumstances. Thanks to the gizmo, I'd located the artwork and identified the thieves. Now I was out the money for the recovery and wondered if I should even turn over the information about the gang. I knew I wasn't going to give it to the police in Madrid. I would probably give it to Ambrose of Interpol before I left the continent.

For now, I just wanted some more sleep. "Must be the medication," I told myself.

I had just started to doze off again when there was a knock at the door. I got out of bed, grabbed my service weapon, and pulled on my robe as I hobbled to the door. I couldn't have been more surprised when I opened it and saw who it was. I stepped back to admit him.

The detective sergeant from yesterday pointed calmly to the weapon I was holding and said, "Expecting more company?"

"There have now been four attempts on my life since I came to Europe. I don't know what to expect anymore. People from Europe call Americans cowboys, but no one has yet tried to murder me in America."

Grenzner smiled. "You won't need that this morning. I'll be responsible for your safety."

"You don't mind if I bring it along, do you?"

"If I had as many people trying to kill me as you, I'd want it along. Just don't shoot anyone at Headquarters."


"Cuerpo Nacional de Policía, Unidad de Delincuencia Especializada y Violenta here in Madrid. CNP UDEV for short. My captain wants to see you."

"What about?"

Grenzner shrugged. "I suppose he wants to ask you about your claims that the warehouse contained stolen artwork."

I wished now that I had performed the sweep last night and viewed the scene in the warehouse. I wasn't looking forward to being grilled when I didn't know what had happened in there.

Chapter Twenty-One

I had gotten used to sitting and waiting for higher-ups at the FBI offices, so the hour I sat on the hard bench in the hallway wasn't unusual except that my leg was throbbing most of the time. I wanted to pop some more pills, but I also wanted to be fully alert if I was to be grilled by senior police personnel.

Grenzner and I were finally called into his Captain's office. I recognized him from the previous day, and he was the only one in the office when we entered. He didn't rise from his chair or extend his hand.

"Captain," Grenzner said by way of introduction, "this is Special Agent Colton James of the American FBI. James, this is Captain Alberto Ruiz-Camarena."

"Sit down, James," Ruiz-Camarena said brusquely.

There were two chairs facing his desk. I took the one on the left, but Grenzner remained standing.

Ruiz-Camarena didn't waste any time getting down to it. "You've made us look very bad, James."

"How did I do that, Captain?"

"You told us the artwork stolen from the Amstelveen Museum was in that warehouse, and we found nothing."

"The onus is on me, Captain. I'm the one who has been made to look foolish."

"Not once the new story comes out. And the press has already learned about it."

"What story is that?" I asked warily.

"This morning, one of our patrols stopped to check the warehouse. During the night, someone broke the lock we had put on the door and entered the building. They appear to have ripped down a false wall that was hiding the vault you claimed was in the warehouse. The vault is now empty but for a humidifier, dehumidifier, and heater that were obviously meant to control the atmosphere in the vault."

"So the thieves broke in during the night and took back their loot. I can see where that doesn't cast a good light on you. And what's worse is that you refused to let me enter the warehouse and point out where the vault was."

"You knew the artwork was there. How?"

"I can't reveal my sources."

"You will, or you'll be a very old man before you see anything but bars every morning when you awaken."

"I've broken no laws. In defending myself from one of your homicidal citizens, I acted within the law. I was also operating within the law when I tried to help the police recover fifty million dollars worth of stolen masterpieces. I would have been only too happy to have entered the warehouse and pointed out where I believed the vault to be. I offered, in fact, but you folks wouldn't have it. I assume that excluding me was an effort to have the full credit for the find placed solely at the feet of the UDEV. I imagine you had visions of a promotion for yourself. I'm not sorry you and your people screwed it up."

The police captain just sat there, glaring at me. He knew his threat about my waking up in a cell for the rest of my life was hollow. Right now he needed me on his side to help salvage his department's reputation. I was also counting on my being an FBI Special Agent working in my favor against any sort of incarceration.

"Do you still have your source? The one who told you about the vault?"

"I seriously doubt that source has any knowledge of what happened or where the artwork might be now. We missed our best chance to recover the masterpieces yesterday." Alright, I couldn't help grinding it in a bit more. They could have shared in the publicity of finding the stolen artwork, but they wanted it all. They no doubt had some story ready about how they had already been watching the warehouse and were ready to move in when I got in the way and almost ruined everything. Bureaucrats were the same everywhere, whether in a police department or some other government agency. "So how would you proceed?" Ruiz-Camarena asked.

"I don't know right now. I thought I had this theft all wrapped up yesterday. And I did. If not for the attack on me by that crazed assassin, I would have notified the Cuerpo Nacional de Policía and Interpol of my suspicions and let the lawful authorities take over. But now I'm back to square one. Well, perhaps not square one, but I have no idea right now where the artwork might be. It might be somewhere else in Madrid, or it might be in Rome, Berlin, or even Lisbon. I'll just have to start working the case again. That is, once I heal a bit. My leg is giving me considerable pain right now." Almost wistfully I added, "Perhaps some time in Marseilles is exactly what I need."

"So you think the thieves took the artwork to Marseilles?"

I had been counting on him jumping to that conclusion. "No, I was just thinking of renting a little house that looks out over the Mediterranean while I heal. Of course, there's always the Bahamas. The weather there is beautiful right now."

I guess Captain Ruiz-Camarena finally realized I wasn't going to simply hand him the solution to the case and let him cut me out completely again. "Get out of my office, Mr. FBI. And if you get so much as a traffic ticket in Madrid, I'll see that you spend time in our jail. Your FBI credentials won't help you a bit."

I stood up, nodded my head at Ruiz-Camarena, and turned to leave. Grenzner opened the office door for me and followed me out.

"That was foolish, American. You shouldn't have angered the Captain that way."

"Are you saying he's vindictive?"

Grenzner just shrugged.

"Your Captain shouldn't have tried to cut me out of the case. Once I'm better, I'll locate the artwork again. If it happens to be in Spain, I hope I'm treated with a little more respect by your superiors and included in the recovery."

"Come. I'll drive you back to your hotel so you can get some more rest. You'll feel better when your leg mends and you have time to decide how you want to proceed."

I already knew how I intended to proceed. I had to use the gizmo to find where the artwork had been taken. But I knew I would never use it in my current hotel room. I had sat in Ruiz-Camarena's outer office for an hour, yet he had been alone when we were finally allowed in. I was confident that while I had been sitting in his outer office, his people were hard at work planting bugs in my room and possibly my clothing.

I took a pain killer as soon as I was back in my room. If the police wanted to listen to me snore, that was okay. When I was feeling better I would perform an electronic sweep of my possessions, move to a new hotel where I believed the room to be clean, and then sweep it just to be sure.

I didn't want to call Kathy at the moment and let whoever might be watching or listening know her phone number, so I opened my computer and told her via email that I would be out of touch for about a week. I also told her I was fine and she shouldn't worry.

Then I went to bed.

I slept off and on for two days, taking pain killers whenever the throbbing in my leg was bothering me. The pain slowly ebbed and the injury seemed to be improving. I changed the dressing after two days and, while still red and swollen, it looked substantially better than it had the first day. There didn't seem to be any sign of infection, so I didn't return to the hospital. I limped a little when I walked, but that was only because it ached when I put weight on the muscles. I didn't believe there would be any permanent defect in my stride.

There was no need for me to be anywhere near the warehouse now, so I moved to a nice little B&B about six miles north of Madrid in a town named Alcobendas where I could relax and heal. I didn't bother sweeping the old room before I left.

I felt a little better each day, and I was anxious to get back into the case, so on the third day in the B&B I swept the room for bugs. The room was clean, but my clothes weren't. I found three electronic bugs similar to the one Watson had found in my belt when I was in London. I removed them from my clothing, sealed them in the small metal case that was holding my growing collection, then verified there were no others in my clothes or luggage. The device I'd bought from Watson was worth its weight in gold.

There were many things I wanted to see with the gizmo, but the warehouse topped the list. I first went to the present time and saw the fake wall that had hidden the vault entrance. I admit that I would have been fooled myself if I hadn't known exactly where the vault was located. When I'd rechecked to see if the artwork had been moved, I hadn't thought to check the outside appearance of the vault. Another valuable lesson learned.

I went back in time to when the artwork had been brought to the vault, then advanced day by day as the two thieves constructed the phony wall. They had secured a pile of old bricks that matched the ones used to construct the warehouse, then mixed up a special cement to match the decades-old cement in the other walls. They even matched the consistency so the new cement would crumble slightly like the old cement if it was dug out from between the bricks. When they were done, their work was such a masterpiece of disguise that it would have made a Hollywood film set construction team jealous. They'd cleaned up, sprinkled dust and dirt around the area, then used a fan to blow dust onto the new wall section before laying some dusty old planks against it. It seemed obvious they intended to let the artwork remain hidden for some time before trying to sell it. No one— not even myself— would have ever guessed there was a vault behind that wall section. But I wasn't going to say that to Ruiz-Camarena.

My next effort was to locate the artwork again. I found it in a small van parked in Bordeaux with the paintings sealed inside what I hoped were airtight containers. Obviously the thieves hadn't made contingency plans in case the first hiding place had been discovered or become unavailable. They must have been going crazy trying to figure out how I'd known about their hidden vault. Going back to when the van had arrived, I saw that it had been driven by the man I'd established as the ringleader. After locking the van, he had gotten into a car driven by the thief who had helped him build the wall that concealed the vault. At this time I wasn't interested in where they were headed, so as they drove off, I moved on to other events I wanted to watch.

I went back and watched as the washroom assassin escaped from the police ward in the Amsterdam hospital. He'd had an accomplice on the inside who started a fight with an orderly down the hall from the prison ward. It drew the only policeman on duty away from his station. Another accomplice had then freed the assassin and given him some clothes. Both then disappeared into the night. I didn't bother to track them. I was well aware of where my attacker would be a couple of weeks after his escape.

Lastly, I watched the attack on me. It was not my finest moment, and I looked a bit ungainly as I dove for the floor. I looked positively foolish when I got tangled up with the chair and had trouble getting my shots off, but it turned out well. The washroom assassin was dead and I was alive, although a bit shot up.

I knew I would have to wait until the thieves found a new place to secret the artwork before I could claim victory in solving the case, so I would rest up and let my injury heal. The pain was mostly gone, so I began walking a little more each day to stretch the muscles. That caused some of the pain to return, but I believed that not stretching the muscles would be worse, and the stitches holding the furrow closed looked a little better each day as the redness and swelling disappeared. I would have a scar, to be sure, but that could be addressed later.

When next I checked, the van containing the artwork was parked inside a garage next to a home. Actually, it was more like a barn than a garage, but it was remote enough to ensure minimum danger to locals if the police moved in. I continued to look in every day, and the van and artwork never moved again. I wanted to finish up the case and go home, but I knew I couldn't do anything until the artwork was stored somewhere. While it was in the truck, it could disappear in a minute. If the gang had any informants who had contacts in the police, they might get enough warning to be long gone before the police arrived at the barn.

Madrid was a beautiful city and Spain a lovely country. I hoped that someday I could come back with Kathy, but I felt as though I had worn out my welcome for the present. I decided I could just as easily wait in the nice B&B I'd found in London as at a B&B near Madrid. I had gotten permission to leave the country, so the next day I took the trains back to London.

Mrs. Stokes welcomed me back to the B&B and gave me the same room I'd stayed in previously. It was almost like coming home. When Mrs. Stokes asked about my cane and limp, I told her it was nothing and that I'd be fine in a couple of weeks. Just being somewhere where I understand the local language went a long way towards making me feel more comfortable.

I promised myself that when I returned home I would invest in a couple of those foreign language courses that teach enough to hold a basic conversation. It seemed that most of the people I'd met on the continent spoke either French or German in addition to their own language, so I'd concentrate on those. When Kathy and I visited Europe together, I wouldn't feel so isolated everywhere we went.

I spent a full week recuperating at the B&B in London and then decided to go back to Amsterdam. With the two assassins dead, I hoped it would be a safer place. I intended to take the early ferry, so I handled my goodbyes the night before. I thanked Mrs. Stokes for her kindnesses and promised her I would never stay anywhere else in London if she had a room available.

The taxi driver fought traffic all the way to the Liverpool Street Station, but I assume he was used to it and he did get me to the station in time to purchase a ticket and make the 6:38 departure time. Once aboard the train I settled down and tried to relax after the hectic hour. I decided that if I ever made this trip again, I would definitely take the evening ferry.

The train arrived in Harwich right on time, allowing plenty of time to purchase my ticket to Hoek of Holland and get aboard the ship. Since I was taking the early ferry, I chose not to take a cabin and would sit in one of the lounges for the trip across. I wished the weather was a little nicer because it would have been great to spend the time out on the deck, but it wasn't quite spring yet and still a bit too cold.

I found what appeared to be a comfortable overstuffed chair next to a large window, so I removed my winter overcoat and settled in. I figured I should have a great view of the North Sea seascape and shipping traffic once the ship left dock.

I had been sitting there for about fifteen minutes, feigning indifference to passengers around me who I judged posed no threat, when I heard a voice from behind and to my left ask, "Is that seat taken?"

I turned my head and saw one of the sexiest women I'd ever seen outside of a Victoria's Secret advertisement. I estimated her age at about twenty-two or twenty-three and her height at about five ten in her stockinged feet, but she was wearing heels that would have made her appear taller than myself if I'd been standing. I knew that most runway models were young and tall, so I reasoned she might very well be in the fashion trade. She had already removed her coat and her skin appeared as flawless as a china figurine. Glistening ebony hair that reached her waist fell loosely over her left shoulder and covered part of the dark-blue designer evening dress straining to contain world-class breasts. Her bright ruby lips looked soft and inviting, with just a touch of gloss. I could probably have continued describing her to myself for another ten minutes.

I'd always thought of myself as moderately handsome, and thanks to the five months at Quantico, I was in the best shape of my life, but I had never been what was called a chick magnet. Of course, the recent improvement in my financial condition had allowed me to upgrade my wardrobe considerably. I no longer bought off-the-rack suits, my shoes were the best quality available short of being custom made, and I had splurged on a Bulgari Diagono Professional Diver's Watch after my last art recovery. Although Rolex watches were supposed to be water resistant, and probably were, the water-resistant-to-a-hundred-meters claim that came with my watch had eased my mind following my swim in the Amsterdam canal. And I preferred the action look of the Bulgari over the dinner-and-opera look of the Rolexes.

"It's available," I said, trying not to pant.

She smiled at me as she eased herself down into the chair facing mine. I noticed that she even sat down in a sexy manner. "I'm Mia," she said in a deep, sultry voice that would make most men do anything to please her as she removed her elbow-length, black-leather gloves. While most of the chair sets in the lounge had a small table between them, this set was at the end of the room and next to a bulkhead. The tighter spacing didn't leave enough room for a table and made conversation more intimate.

"Hi, Mia. I'm Colt."

"You sound like an American."

"I am."

"I'm Greek, but I've spent a lot of time in America. It's such a wonderful country. My own country is experiencing so much hardship and turmoil these days. I haven't been back there in several years."

"That's a shame. Economic difficulties seem to run in cycles. Perhaps the recession in Europe will begin to ease soon and the turmoil will die down." I paused as I considered the structural lines of her face and guessed at the color and texture of her skin beneath the makeup by using her ears as a reference. "Your skin color is very light for a Greek."

"I'm only half Greek. My mother was born in Estonia. Father met her while on business there. He was in the shipping business and was in Tallinn for negotiations to acquire a shipping company where my mother worked. He bought the company and my mother became one of his employees. When he returned to Greece, she went with him as his wife."

"Are your brothers in the shipping business?"

"I have no brothers or sisters. I was an only child. How about you?"

"I have no siblings, and my parents died in a car accident."

"So sad. We are both alone. My parents died in a plane crash eight years ago. Since then I spend all my time traveling. I was in Austria a couple of months ago for the skiing, and then I went to Lisbon to warm up a little. I love the sun, but I have to be careful because I burn so easily, and the sun can really damage your skin," she said, giggling at something, perhaps a memory of something that had happened in Lisbon.

As a conversationalist, Mia was both interesting and incredibly easy to talk to, traits that were usually indicative of a considerable intellect. I couldn't believe it when the announcement system informed us the ship was preparing to dock. The hours had disappeared like seconds. We had talked about anything and everything but really nothing. I didn't really know very much more about her background than I had learned in the first few minutes after we met. Oh, I knew superficial stuff, such as where she liked to stay when she traveled and what kinds of foods she most enjoyed, but little of substance except her ethnic origins, that she was an orphan, and how her parents had met and eventually died. I didn't know where she'd been schooled, who had taken care of her after her parents died until she was of age, and what she expected to do with her future.

As I've always said, I will continue to appreciate the beauty of women until the day I die. And I understand when a woman appreciates the beauty of males. It's just human nature. I enjoyed looking at Mia, and it signified no disrespect to Kathy. Kathy had a different kind of beauty. She didn't have the runway-model look but rather the wholesome look of a mother and life partner. Most importantly, she was the woman I hoped to spend the rest of my days with. I had no intention of sleeping with Mia and didn't pursue an avenue that would lead to that.

"It's been wonderful meeting and talking with you Mia," I said as the ship lurched slightly and the sound of the engines began to diminish rapidly. "I hope we meet again sometime."

"Are you headed for Amsterdam?"

"Uh, yes."

"Then would you like to have dinner with me? I'm staying at the NH Barbizon Palace. It's on Prins Hendrikkade near Zeedijk."

Believing the ship was docked, I stood up. Mia apparently took her cue from me and stood as well. As I'd originally speculated, her high heels made her about an inch taller. Standing up at the same time left us with just inches between us.

I didn't think dinner was a good idea, but I didn't know how to get out of it gracefully. "I don't know where that is. This is only my second trip to Amsterdam."

"It's practically part of the Central Train Station, it's so close," she said. When she moved, I felt her breasts brush against my suit coat. "It faces the station from across a canal. Any taxi or limo driver knows the way. Where are you staying?"

"At the Hotel Pulitzer on Prinsengracht."

"That's a very nice hotel." The way she said it— in that deep, sultry voice of hers— made it sound like a sex palace, or perhaps I was just imagining it."I stayed there once. It's less than a kilometer from the NH Barbizon Palace. I believe we should arrive in Amsterdam about seven o'clock, so shall we say— nine o'clock at my hotel?"

I guess the boat hadn't previously completed docking because it suddenly seemed to impact something. Mia flew into me, and as I fell backwards I grabbed for the arms of the chair to arrest my fall. We wound up with her lying on top of me, her arms around my neck and our faces less than an inch apart while I held us suspended above the chair. I could feel her chest against mine and her hot breath on my lips.

Suddenly, she smiled and leaned in the last inch to plant her lips on mine. They were the softest I'd ever kissed. I had been trying to keep from falling completely into the chair and was now effectively prevented from asking her to try to stand up. But at the same time, I didn't want her to stand up. Her perfume was enticing me to stay like that forever, and her lips were sealing the deal.

But all good things must end, and when we realized that other passengers were looking at us strangely, Mia pulled back, giggled, and pressed her hands against my chest to get upright. Once her weight was off me, I was able to regain a vertical position. But we were still toe to toe.

"It's so nice to meet a strong, tall man," Mia said quietly. "It was what made me come over to sit by you. So many men are like midgets compared to me when I wear heels."

"You're taller than me right now."

"But only because of my shoes," she said as she pulled on her gloves. "And men like women to wear high heels. People say they make a woman's legs look longer and more slender, so even though they are supposed to be bad for our feet, we wear them out of vanity."

"I admit that I like high heels on women."

"Then I shall wear my tallest heels to dinner tonight. Help me with my coat, darling."

The 'darling' threw me for a second, but I'd met a number of women who liked to talk in a familiar way, even with strangers they'd just met. After I helped her, I pulled my own overcoat on.

"Shall we go?" she asked once she had her coat buttoned.

"Uh, sure," I said as I extended the handle on my suitcase and pulled it over so it rested on two of its four wheels. "You don't have any luggage?"

"I sent it on ahead using an overnight delivery service. That's why I'm dressed this way. This is the dress I wore to dinner last night. All I have with me is a change of underwear. My clothes should be at the hotel already."

"That's convenient."

As I started to walk towards the lounge entranceway, Mia fell in alongside me on my right and slipped her arm beneath mine. I wasn't altogether comfortable with the high-speed familiarity, but I attributed it to her lifestyle of jet-setting around the globe and from, as she'd said, living life for the moment.

Mia had purchased a one-fare ticket, so she was ready to board the train to Rotterdam immediately, but I still had to purchase a ticket on the Sprinter line. Once I had it, we boarded the train and found seats where we could continue to talk. This time we sat side by side, and after a few minutes Mia slid her arm inside mine and leaned closer. I told myself it was because the car was a little noisy.

In Rotterdam, we changed to the InterCity Train for the final leg to Amsterdam. After settling in, Mia again slid her arm through mine, but this time she also intertwined her fingers with mine. Okay, most people wouldn't consider it a big deal, but we had only met that morning. I attributed it to her age and the mores of her peers, but it made me just the least bit uncomfortable.

In spite of my personal discomfiture with the familiarity, we had an engaging conversation all the way to Amsterdam. And, truth be told, I had forgotten all about my earlier discomfort by the time we arrived at Amsterdam Central Train station.

After exiting the station, Mia pointed out the NH Barbizon Palace on the other side of a canal. I flagged down a taxi, and in several minutes we were at her hotel. I explained to the driver that after my friend got out I would be continuing on to the Pulitzer.

Mia was on the right side of the rear seat, and as the hotel doorman opened the door, he greeted her by name. After she was out of the cab I slid over to the right seat. Mia waited until I was settled, then leaned in and planted another kiss on me. I expected a simple peck on the cheek or maybe on the mouth, but it was by far the most passionate kiss of the several she'd generously bestowed on me.

As she pulled back and I sucked in some much needed air, she smiled and said sweetly in that sultry voice of hers, "Nine o'clock, sweetheart. Don't keep me waiting."

Chapter Twenty-Two

The hotel manager intercepted me as I entered the lobby of the Pulitzer and headed towards the desk. "Welcome back, Special Agent James. I'm delighted to see you're okay. The news contained stories that there had been two more attempts on your life and that you had been injured in one. Is that the reason for the cane?"

"Thank you. My injuries were minor. I'm almost ready to stop using the cane, and I'm happy to say that the man who attacked me here in the washroom won't be attacking anyone ever again."

"That's wonderful to hear. I hope there won't be any further— issues here at the hotel."

"As do I."

"Your room is just as you left it. Shall I have a boy take your bags up?"

"I'm fine, thanks. It's only the one bag."

"Then allow us to prepare your key." The manager snapped his fingers and the desk clerk held out the plastic room-keycard. The manager took it and then extended it to me. "Here you are, sir. And again, welcome back to Amsterdam."

"Thank you."

The room certainly looked unchanged as I entered, but I expected that in my absence a number of bugs might have been planted to replace those I'd found and removed. I wondered if the Chief Inspector had made any progress identifying who was responsible for planting the ones in my jackets, if he hadn't already known. I would have loved to sweep the room, but I didn't have time if I was going to meet Mia at nine o'clock. I would also have loved to look into her background a little. I was concerned because she had never asked me what I did for a living, why I was armed, or why I was using a cane. She had to have felt the Glock under my left arm in at least one of our close encounters. Kathy had noticed it immediately upon my return from Quantico.

If Mia was working for the 'other side,' whoever that might be, I had to know. She could be with the art thieves, who, after having been unsuccessful in killing me, might now simply be trying to learn what I knew and how I knew it. Or, Mia could be working for the Spanish police, the Netherlands police, Interpol, or even someone else— someone who was trying to get to the artwork before I did. Or— Mia could be exactly what she seemed to be— a lonely young woman who didn't know what to do with herself. I sincerely hoped it was the latter, but that was unlikely. She had been coming on to me from the start, and, as I said, I've never been a chick magnet. Finally, it's been my experience that most very tall women don't wear very high heels under normal circumstances because it reduces their chances of meeting someone. Some guys really dig tall chicks but most prefer someone their height or shorter. Mia seemed too perfectly suited to me for it to be an accidental meeting.

If only I had time to check with the gizmo— but I also had no place where I could use it until I swept the suite.

The front desk at the NH Barbizon Palace hotel called Mia to announce my arrival. I was then given the room number and pointed to the elevators.

Mia opened the door almost as soon as I knocked, but she wasn't quite ready yet. She hadn't put on her shoes, so she was some four inches shorter than me.

"Zip me up, dear," she said, turning to expose her back to me.

The zipper was still well below her waist, so I pulled the dress out slightly so her panties wouldn't get caught and then zipped it up to the top. She stood there patiently, playing with a stud holder that refused to secure to the stud of an earring in her right ear while I fastened the top closure. "All done," I said.

"Wonderful. Just give me five more minutes. I think I have to find a different set of earrings. Why don't you open a bottle of wine? The bar refrigerator has several in it."

As I took my first good look around her suite, I couldn't help but be impressed, both with its size and the quality of its furnishings. I began to seriously wonder who this girl was. It appeared less like she could be associated with any police force, but there was still the chance of her working for the art thieves. They might have some serious money behind their operation. Still, a one-night stay in the hotel wasn't going to break anyone's budget. The field was still wide open.

I was delighted when I looked into the refrigerator. The wines were some of the best available vintages. They were the ones I had never been able to afford until the gizmo had come into my life.

"White or red?" I shouted.

"You pick, sweetheart."

There was a bottle of 1997 Mascarello Barolo on the top shelf— fitting since it was supposed to be a top-shelf vintage. I'd never tasted it myself, but I'd overheard someone talking about it once. He'd said it was his favorite wine to have when he was celebrating a special occasion. I opened the bottle and poured two glasses to let it breathe.

Mia appeared about twenty minutes later. By then I had drunk a glass of the most delicious wine I could remember drinking, and poured another. But even if I'd had nothing to drink, I would still have been floored by Mia's beauty. Though I'd seen her as she was dressing, the finishing touches— the shoes, the makeup, the jewelry— made it seem like she'd just stepped out of the pages of a fashion magazine.

"Mia, you're breathtaking. How can such an intelligent woman look so incredibly fantastic and not be taken?"


"Uh— married or betrothed."

"I guess I just haven't found the right man yet." Looking at my glass, she said, "Oh darling, you started without me. I guess I'll have to catch up."

"I couldn't resist. It's such a great vintage, and I held off as long as I could. Once I took the first sip, I couldn't stop."

"I've always had a fondness for this vintage as well."

"Where shall we dine tonight? Downstairs?"

"Oh, no. Their food is excellent here, but I have a special place I like to go when I'm in Amsterdam. It's a private club— very exclusive. The cost of a lifetime membership is one hundred fifty thousand Euros."

"That does sound exclusive." This revelation added a whole new dimension to learning the real identity of Mia. I'd have to discount the police agencies now, if the club was genuine. I supposed that the ties of a crime syndicate could pull together a scam like that— after all, those two assassins wouldn't have come cheap— and someone looking to beat me to the five million recovery fee could be likewise financed.

"And the food is incredible. Even though a member, you still pay for whatever you consume. The prices are outrageous, but it's worth every cent. And after you eat, you can dance or try your luck at the tables. But most important, you don't have to worry about paparazzi. They can't get within fifty feet of the club entrance. Let's go, darling, I'm starving."

As Mia finished off the wine in her glass, I re-corked the bottle and put it back into the refrigerator. Then I helped her with her coat.

Rather than give the cab driver the name of the destination, Mia gave him an address. I was beginning to become concerned when we arrived at what appeared to be a private residence, but I paid the driver and followed Mia as she used a key to open the wooden entrance door. As it closed behind us, I realized we were standing in a short corridor with just one door. When we reached that door, a panel in the wall slid up, exposing a flat piece of glass or plastic. Mia placed her hand against it and the door opened, revealing an elevator car. I felt like I was in a spy movie.

"There are five different entrances to the club," Mia said, as the car descended, "and we're told which entrance we should use when we call for reservations. One entrance is in a parking garage, another is in a five-star restaurant around the corner, and the others are like this one. The club's office staff monitors the street activity with closed-circuit cameras, and if we call just before we leave, they can confirm no one is loitering around the entrance they suggested. The paparazzi have given up trying to keep track of who goes in or comes out. And unless your handprint is registered in the club's computer, you can't even open the elevator door."

"Is the five-star restaurant run by the club?" I asked.

"Yes, but it's generally managed as a separate, but lesser, entity. They never share staffs, except that sometimes the club will promote an exceptional restaurant employee to work downstairs. At least that's what I've heard."

The door opened and we stepped into a short corridor. A man stood at the end, near a pair of decorative doors that seemed like enormous frosted glass panels set in wooden frames. The corridor was quiet, but I could hear soft music coming from behind the double doors.

Mia slipped her arm into mine and pulled slightly to get me walking, then said quietly, "Show no surprise to anything I say to the maître d'."

I wanted to ask her what she meant, but we were too close to the maître d' by then.

The man greeted Mia with a huge smile and then began speaking in Dutch. She responded with a smile of her own and a Dutch response. I just stood there and smiled like a polite fool because I had no idea what they were saying. The man then held the left door open and Mia preceded me into the club.

The club was as beautifully appointed as I would have expected of a place that catered exclusively to millionaires. I was beginning to wonder if perhaps Mia might really be as wealthy as she appeared to be. I guess I had always expected beautiful, wealthy young women to be continuously surrounded by a full entourage of eager-to-please people trying to get a share of her money. But Mia had been completely alone when we met. It just didn't add up. However, for the time being I saw no danger, and I allowed myself to be lulled by the extravagances of wealth.

After we had been seated and ordered our food— actually I let Mia order for me— I leaned over towards Mia and asked what she'd meant in the corridor about not showing surprise by what she said.

"You don't speak Dutch?" she asked with seeming astonishment.

"Not a word. Well that's not exactly true. I do know a few words but not enough to follow a conversation."

"I'm sorry, sweetheart. I didn't realize. Let me explain. The club is intended to be a social place, not a business place, so members are permitted to bring no more than three adult guests at a time, at least one of which should be a spouse, fiancé or fiancée, or family member. I told the maître d you were my fiancé." With a smile she added, "You are the fourth fiancé I've brought here this year. It's all a silly game really, but they say it helps keep the social nature of the club intact."

"I see. The fourth this year? And it's only March. You've been a busy girl."

Mia giggled. "I just like coming here, and I hate to come alone. I know a few men who are always willing to give their girlfriend some excuse about not meeting them when it means they get to come here for dinner. They know the secrecy here means that their girlfriends will never know."

"The food is that good? It's not just the 'no paparazzi' factor?"

"I'll let you judge for yourself."

Yes, it was that good. Mia bypassed the local ethnic dishes and ordered a seafood medley with King Crab, scallops, and lobster. As I took my first mouthful, I imagined that heaven would be like this. She also ordered a bottle of the '97 Mascarello Barolo. Halfway through the meal, she ordered a second.

Mia finally opened up a bit more to me. I guess it was the wine. She also asked about the gun I wore under my left arm.

"I didn't know you'd noticed it. You hadn't said anything."

"Darling, I know a lot of men, and a few women, who carry guns. Most are bodyguards, but some carry a gun for self-protection. My own father was never without a gun when he left the house. I once asked him why. He said that people in the shipping business who don't carry a gun and who deal with powerful people who need to ship things sometimes find themselves sinking to the bottom of the Mediterranean with heavy objects tied to their legs. The gun gives them options. It was a chilling statement to a fourteen-year-old girl, but he felt I was mature enough to understand. We live in dangerous times. But when have people not lived in dangerous times? In your country, many people want to believe that everyone is gentle, and if you're nice to them they will be nice to you. They sometimes learn the realities too late. I'm content to let them live with their delusions, but I feel sorry for them. So why do you carry a gun?"

"Because there are people who would like to do me harm or would like to take things from me."

"Just like my father. He was never the aggressor but wouldn't run away either."

"And what about you?"

"I rely on strong men like you to protect me, but I have a tiny weapon I can use as a last resort. Of course, I can't show it to you in here." She giggled and added, "Perhaps later."

After we'd finished eating, Mia showed me to the lounge where a live band was performing. I asked her if she wanted to dance.

"Can you?"

"I've been known to dance from time to time."

"But how— I mean how do you dance with a cane?"

"My leg is almost healed. I'm still using the cane because I get a little muscle twinge at times and it's nice to have something to hold onto."

"Then let us dance and you can hold onto me."

"That's what I planned to do," I said with a smile.

We danced several times. She ordered another bottle of wine and we continued our small party until late into the evening, or perhaps I should say morning.

When I opened my eyes, nothing looked familiar. I was flat on my back, staring up at an unfamiliar ceiling with unfocused eyes. I remembered eating dinner and dancing with Mia, but then things began to blur. And my head was throbbing like a high-speed pile driver. I tried to focus and the fog near the ceiling slowly cleared, but I still didn't recognize it. When I suddenly realized there was someone next to me, I turned to see who it was. It was Mia, and she was naked. I looked down at my own body and realized I was naked also. I began to experience one of those moments of regret I have when I've done something I shouldn't have. It's true I wasn't married. It was also true I wasn't engaged. In fact I hadn't even discussed the subject with Kathy. I also hadn't discussed the subject of children, as Billy had advised. But I cared deeply for Kathy and had remained true to her since we'd first begun dating. I believed she had been likewise. I had never used the gizmo to verify that, and wouldn't.

I was most confused by the depth of feeling I had developed for Mia. We'd had just one day together. How could I have fallen in love in one day? Well, that was a silly question. That was the way it had happened with Kathy. And now I found myself in love with two women— the only two women I believed I'd truly been in love with. I had no idea what I was going to do, other than head for the bathroom to splash some cold water on my face and relieve my bladder.

There wasn't any aspirin in sight in the bathroom, so after I relieved myself, I began to hydrate my body with glasses of cool water. According to one group of experts, alcohol was absorbed quickly into the bloodstream and traveled to the brain, where it collected and then slowly evaporated through the skull and scalp while we slept. The pain one felt from a hangover was the result of the brain actually shrinking slightly from the evaporation. I didn't know if that theory had ever been proven, but on those occasions where I'd had a bit too much to drink, hydrating as soon as I awoke in the morning seemed to have helped the best. In fact, during my college days, unless I was totally blitzed, I drank as much water as I could hold before I went to bed.

Mia was still sound asleep when I returned from the bathroom. I began to hunt for my shorts, but they were nowhere in sight, so I walked to the living room. I found them, my other clothes, and all of Mia's clothes just inside the suite door. I hoped we had made it into the suite before beginning our undressing, but I couldn't remember the event. I collected our clothes and laid them carefully on a couple of chairs.

After pulling on my shorts, I made a pot of coffee. The coffee maker only made one cup at a time, so after filling my cup from the tiny carafe, I started another pot brewing.

I was on my third cup when Mia, still naked, came from the bedroom. She came over to the comfortable chair where I had settled and sat down on my lap, then leaned against me and wrapped her long, slim arms around my neck and head.

"Good morning, my love," she said into my ear as she began kissing me on the side of my face and nibbling at my earlobe.

"Good morning. How do you feel?"

"Like I drank a little too much last night. But what a glorious night it was. I can't remember a better one."

"I wish I could remember this one. Everything after dinner is a blur."

"Then I'll have to refresh your memory. Come back to bed."

When a beautiful, naked woman crawled up on my lap, I had difficulty not becoming aroused. I was sure Mia knew the effect she was having on me. "Mia, would you tell me something?"

"Of course, my love."

"Why did you pick me on the ferry? There were a lot of men who seemed to be traveling alone."

"When I saw you sitting alone down at the end of the room, I thought you looked just as lonely as I was feeling. As I got closer, I also saw that you were a big, strong man like my papa. I hoped we could enjoy some conversation without sex getting in the way. Usually, when I first talk to a man, he immediately begins making plans to get me into bed or to see if he can separate me from my money. You were different. You were interesting, and you made me laugh. You never once made a— what do you Americans call it?— a pass. The longer we talked, the more comfortable I felt talking with you. It was the most wonderful crossing I've ever had."

"I reminded you of your father?"

Mia laughed. "My father was fifty-six when he and mama died, so you certainly didn't remind me of him in appearance. It was— your strength, your look of someone who is confident of his own abilities and doesn't have to constantly prove it to others. An analyst, who I happened to meet at a party last year, told me that if my father were alive today, I would be having a sexual relationship with him. But he couldn't be more wrong. I loved my papa, and he loved me, but never in that way. Yes, you remind me of my papa. But as I got to know you, I realized that while you are like papa in some ways, you are very different in others. Papa was a hard man because he'd had a hard life, and he sometimes forgot to be gentle. In you I see strength but also gentleness. It's a wonderful combination, and one that I rarely find. Now come back to bed, my darling."

Despite my confusion about my feelings toward both Kathy and Mia, I let Mia drag me back to bed. Actually, I wasn't all that hard to drag. She had already reignited passion in me when she climbed onto my lap.

I stayed with Mia for the rest of the day, and we had the hotel send up food so we didn't have to go out or hardly even leave the bedroom. At one point she asked about the injury to my leg. I told her the whole story about the shootout in Paris and the one on the ferry. She accepted it far better than I believed Kathy would. I supposed it was her upbringing.

After I finished my story, she told me hers. When her parents died, she had inherited a shipping company started by her great-grandfather. Her grandfather had taken the small shipping company that served ports on the Aegean Sea and expanded it into a shipping company that served the entire Mediterranean. Then her father had expanded the company to serve ports all over the Atlantic Ocean.

"My papa wanted a son who would take over the company and take it worldwide, but I was an only child, so he tried to teach me the business. But I lack the skill to run such a large company, so I leave it to others. I'm not the forceful personality type."

"I'm amazed that you travel alone without a bodyguard. You would seem to be a prime candidate for kidnapping and ransom."

"I'm normally surrounded by bodyguards. Sometimes I feel smothered. I was at a party in London two nights ago, and my date left me alone to go make advances to another girl."

I interrupted her to say, "The idiot."

Mia smiled widely, kissed me, then laid her head on my chest. "Anyway, I was sitting there, wanting to be somewhere else— anywhere else. And I didn't even want my bodyguards around me, so I slipped out a back way. It was quite late, and nothing was open, so I took a taxi to the Liverpool Street Station. Once there, I decided to go to Amsterdam on the morning ferry."

"But you said your clothes had been sent on ahead."

"I made that up because I was embarrassed about what I'd done. I'd never run away like that before. Since I stay here all the time, I keep several trunks in storage. I called and had them bring my trunks up and prepare the suite for me. After I arrived I called my bodyguards and told them what I'd done and where I was. They arrived this morning. I had a text message on my phone when I awoke. I told them I was fine and not to disturb me."

"Where are they?"

"Another suite here in the hotel. There will probably be one of them outside my door when you leave— next week."

"Next week?"

"Hopefully," she said with a smile.

It was my turn to smile and kiss her. "I would like nothing better than to spend my life making love with you, but I have work to do."

"Do you mean that?"

"Yes, I have to wrap up the case I'm working on."

"No, not that. I mean the other part."

I thought about what I'd said and how my witty response might have been misconstrued. "Making love to you has been divine."

"No, I mean the part about spending your life with me?"

That was what I was afraid she might be thinking. "I think it's a little early for such decisions. We just met yesterday."

"It's not too early for me, dearest. You are exactly the kind of man I've been looking for and haven't come close to finding— until now. I was beginning to think that such a man didn't exist. That I was being a foolish little girl for even hoping I would find my— Prince Charming. And now I have."

I knew I'd have to be careful with what I said next. I believed Mia was at a fragile moment. She had probably started down that road when the bastard she was with at the party two days ago chose to hit on another woman after coming to the party with Mia. If I said the wrong thing I could completely shatter her ego, but I wasn't ready to make a lifelong commitment to her. And I couldn't forget that Kathy was probably looking for a commitment from me as well. I had openly professed my love for both women, and I meant it. As I tried to choose my words, all I could think about was the serious error I had made when I agreed to go to dinner with Mia while we were still on the ferry.

Chapter Twenty-Three

"Mia, you're an incredible, smart, beautiful, and sexy woman. The time we've spent together, since that first moment on the ferry, has been wonderful…"

"Oh my God," she said as she pushed herself up off my chest. "There's another woman, isn't there? I should have known that someone so wonderful would be— taken. Why aren't you wearing a ring so women will know? Or is that why you don't wear one?"

"I don't wear a ring because I'm not married."


"Never, yet."

"So that's it. You're afraid of commitment?"

"No, not really."

"Then you don't love me?"

"Yes, I do. I mean…"

"That it's too soon for a commitment?"

"As I said, we just met yesterday. It's too early to decide about the rest of our lives."

Mia relaxed and laid back down with her head on my chest. "Not for me, sweetheart. I've never felt this way before about anyone. When I'm with you, I hear the angels singing."

I had no answer for that. The only way I could respond was with a similar statement of bliss, so I decided not to answer. We just laid there like that for a while in complete silence. Then Mia got amorous again and began kissing my chest and lightly rubbing her hands over my body. My body began to respond without my conscious consent, so I had absolutely no choice but to join in.

After another night of wild and spectacular sex, I was even more exhausted when morning arrived than I had been at midnight, despite having just gotten several hours' sleep. Billy's story of his first night with his Wall Street gal came to mind, and I had a new appreciation for what he'd experienced. I thought I'd been in good shape when I met Mia, but perhaps different muscles are used during sex. I knew that if I kept this up for a couple of weeks, I would either be a superman, or dead.

Mia was sleeping soundly when I awoke, so I used the time to my best advantage. I took the gizmo into the bathroom and used it to check the location of the artwork. While my hotel suite might have hidden cameras, I didn't think the Dutch police or Interpol would have gone to that length in a hotel suite where Mia was staying.

I was delighted to learn the artwork had finally been moved. No longer in the rear of a van, it was in a dark place that appeared to be a rental storage location. All of the pieces were still together. I maneuvered the window until it was outside the space and I could identify the storage locker number, then pulled way back and got the address off the building. Finally, a road sign told me the artwork was now in Zurich. The extra work had been necessary because my laptop with the GPS software was in my suite at the Pulitzer.

I was tired of being shot at, so there would be no more trips or stakeouts. I was going to prepare my final report and wrap up the case. The museum officials and the insurance company would know the location of the stolen artwork before the police, so there could be no attempts by government officials to take credit for the recovery. Thanks to the gizmo, I knew all the facts. I would just have to present them in such a way as to make everyone believe I was a genius, and it was all the result of excellent sleuthing. And if they didn't believe that, it didn't matter. The recovery fee was for the recovery of the artwork, not for building a robbery case for the police. They had ways of getting confessions without my help.

With the gizmo back in its dilapidated box, I finished my business in the bathroom. I would have liked to go back to bed for eight more hours' sleep, but I didn't really think I'd get it. Mia was insatiable and would probably be awake soon. I decided to make some coffee and relax while I could. I suspected it was going to be a difficult scene when I was ready to leave the suite, but I knew I couldn't just sneak out, as tempting as that might be at the moment.

I was once again on my third cup when Mia emerged from the bedroom.

"I thought you might have left," she said. "Come back to bed, my love."

"I have work to do today."

"Then you are leaving?"

"I have work to do."

"Will you come back?"

"When my work is done, if you're still here."

"If you're coming back, I'll be here. How long do you think it will be?"

"Perhaps a few days."

"No more?"

"Perhaps a little. It's impossible to say for sure."

"I will wait until you return. Perhaps I will do a little shopping to make the time pass quicker."

Leaving was easier than I had expected. Mia hung onto me for at least a full minute, her lips locked with mine, but then she released me and allowed me to go, saying only, "Call me."

"I will. If you call me, don't be surprised if I don't pick up right away. I keep my phone in a special case so people can't track me. That also means the cell towers can’t find me to complete calls. So if I don't answer, just leave a message and I'll call when I see the message."

As I left the suite, a man who had to be part of her security staff gave me the once over. I nodded, then turned towards the elevators.

When I entered the Pulitzer, the desk staff looked up momentarily, smiled, then resumed their work. I had my key card, so I didn't need anything at the desk.

I had showered at Mia's, but I took another in my suite. It wasn't that I felt unclean— I just wanted to relax in the spray for a bit. I had dreaded the goodbye scene with Mia and hadn't begun to relax until I was in the cab. The hot shower helped me further unwind.

Once my laptop computer had finished booting up, I opened the encrypted report I'd written in London. I updated it with the new information, then dragged out my portable printer and produced the text. The tiny printer was slow, but that was the price paid for portability. I could have had the report printed in the hotel office, but it was 'eyes only' at this point.

I made two copies and then packed the printer away again. When I had tidied up, I placed a call to Kurt Locher at the insurance company. He was out, but they had standing orders to notify him if I called.

Five minutes later, Locher returned my call. When I told him why I had called, he said he'd be at my hotel in fifteen minutes. I hadn't eaten at Mia's, so I called down and asked them to send up some coffee, breakfast, and pastries.

When Locher arrived, Chief Inspector Schaake and Floyd Ambrose of Interpol were with him.

"Welcome back, Colt," Locher said. "I understand we almost lost you twice while you were gone."

"They did their best," I said. "I guess I was just a little bit better this time."

"What happened in Madrid? We've been unable to get a straight answer from the police there."

"I located the artwork, but the police barred me from the scene. They failed to find it in the warehouse where it was hidden and still wouldn't let me in to show them where it was. Overnight, the thieves broke into the warehouse, tore down the fake wall erected to hide the vault, removed the artwork, and got away clean. The next day the police discovered the broken lock on the door and then understood how they had been tricked. I imagine they're still trying to cover up their mistake."

"How did you know the artwork was hidden behind a fake wall?" Schaake asked.

"I secured that information from a private source that shall remain nameless."

"So the artwork is gone again?" Ambrose said.

"Yes, it's in Switzerland now."

"And just how do you know that?" Schaake asked.

"Let's just say I know, and if we move quickly, we can recover it."

"What about the thieves?"

"I've identified all of them."

"How is that possible?" Schaake said irritably. "You've been in London and Madrid."

"That you know of."

"You've been elsewhere?"



"Well, the Netherlands for one."

"Are you saying you knew their identities before you left?"

"I had a list of suspects. Why do you think they were so anxious to kill me, Chief Inspector?"

Schaake just scowled.

"So where's the artwork?" Ambrose asked.

"I have it all written down in my report." Looking at Locher, I asked, "Have you recovered any of the artwork yet, or received any leads as to where it might be?"

"What? Don't you know?"

"Yes, I know, I just want you to say it."

"No, we haven't."

"So there are no prior claims to mine for the recovery fee or any portion thereof?"


I reached into the inside pocket of my suit coat and removed the two copies of the report I had prepared. "These will tell you where the artwork is right now and who was involved in the theft. I'm sorry, Floyd, but I only prepared two copies because I only have a tiny, portable printer with me." I handed one copy to Locher and the other to Schaake.

Locher read his copy over several times while Schaake read his and then handed it to Ambrose to read.

"How can you be sure this list of suspects is accurate?" Schaake asked.

"I don't have to be sure. I only have to be sure of the location of the artwork. I would hurry to retrieve the paintings before they move them again. The names of the involved parties are simply a gift to you, Chief Inspector Schaake, to help you build your case."

"You haven't even been to Switzerland," Ambrose said. "How can you be sure the artwork is there or still there?"

"You're wasting time, gentlemen. The Spanish police captain let the artwork slip through his grasp, and I had to find it again. If you lose it because you drag your feet in recovering it, my fee to find it a third time will double."

"We know you arrived in Amsterdam in the company of Mia Kosarros two days ago," Schaake said. "Her company does business all over Europe, Africa, and the Americas, and is reputed to have ties with organized crime. Is she involved in this? Has she or someone in her company been providing information that allowed you to learn the identities of the thieves and track the artwork to its new location?"

"Mia herself knows absolutely nothing about the thefts and is not involved in any way."

"Then it comes from someone who works for her?" Ambrose asked.

"Tic tock, gentlemen. Are you interested in recovering the artwork or peppering me with questions?"

Locher looked at Ambrose, and said, "Floyd, can you coordinate the recovery with the Swiss?"

"I'll get right on it. By the time we get there, a search warrant should be arranged."

"Good. I'll arrange for a jet. Chief Inspector, can you have our suspects picked up for questioning and held until we recover the artwork?"

Schaake nodded.

"Good. Are you coming with us, Colt?"

"No. The report will lead you directly to the artwork. There's no false wall to confuse anyone this time. Have a safe trip."

Schaake looked at me with distrust in his eyes but followed Locher and Ambrose out of the suite. I knew he would run the names through the criminal database before acting and that would leave little doubt that five of them might be involved. I hoped he would at least arrest the two without criminal histories on suspicion before they had a chance to flee the country, but that was his business now.

I wished I could have provided more substantiative answers, but even with the gizmo I had been in way over my head since first arriving in Amsterdam. All I really wanted now was to be done with a case responsible for four attempts on my life. My involvement had gotten me shot and forced me to kill two human beings. And I needed time to decide how I was going to deal with the issue of a beautiful young woman who kept professing undying love for me.

I parked myself on the sofa to contemplate my situation.

Eight plus hours later I was still on the couch and still without a resolution. When I had met Mia, she had seemed like such a strong young woman. She was traveling between countries on her own and had engaged a complete stranger in conversation by purposely taking a seat facing him in what was almost an intimate situation. It hardly seemed like the act of an insecure person, especially when considering that she had provided lively and intelligent conversation the entire trip. But as I'd gotten to know her, I'd come to believe that was a façade. She was really a lonely young woman, lacking self-confidence, who appeared to have been used badly by the people around her. Her story of the man who had deserted her at a party to woo another woman was a prime example. Or was it a manufactured lie put forward to elicit sympathy? I just didn't know. Had I seen the real Mia or just the one she wanted me to see?

I knew one thing for sure. I had done the right thing by leaving. I thought I'd needed time to think, but thinking only raised more questions. After hours of contemplation, I was more confused than ever.

I finally left the sofa and went to the desk, where I created a list of the important questions. It was a method I often turned to when I needed to solve difficult and complex issues. After listing all of the questions, I listed all of the suppositions I'd made and the possible resolutions. When I was done, all I had was a long list with no resolutions.

It was late in Amsterdam but only the dinner hour on the east coast of the U.S., so I retrieved my cell phone from the special case and called Kathy's number. When she answered she was angry. I knew she was angry because she was screaming into the phone.

"Colton James, where have you been? I've been trying to contact you for days."

The last few days had been a blur, but I knew I hadn't called Kathy since I was staying in London. "I'm sorry, babe. I've been incredibly involved over here. The cell phone has been in its case, and I never heard it ring. I'm in Amsterdam right now. I just wrapped up the case— I think."

"I'm sure you have. It's on the evening news that the artwork was recovered in Switzerland. When did you go to Switzerland? Are you back in London? The Dutch police have arrested five suspects and issued arrest warrants for two more, and the insurance company is crediting you with solving the case. But Colton, they're also saying there have been four separate attempts on your life and that you were shot twice during a gun battle in a Madrid restaurant. They're also saying you killed two men. Is that true?"

"Uh, yeah. But I'm okay. One wound was just a scratch. And the other wound was a minor leg injury. I'll be perfectly fine in a month, although I'll probably have a scar."

"When you took that job with the FBI, you said you'd never have to use your gun. You said all you'd be doing is investigation work. Now I learn you're killing people."

"This wasn't for the FBI. This is one of my art recovery cases. And I had no choice with the two deaths. Those men were trying to kill me. I didn't go after them."

"But you did go after them when you took the case. Didn't you think violent criminals would react violently to people sticking their nose into their criminal activity?"

"That's why I've tried to shield you from my cases."

"But I don't want to be shielded. I want you to stop flying all over the world murdering people. I want the sensitive, struggling author back. The one I fell in love with. I want you to end this art recovery business and resign from the FBI immediately. Now tell me you're going to quit."

I didn't reply right away. When she didn't hear anything, Kathy said, "Are you still there, Colton?"

"I'm here. I'm thinking. It's not the kind of decision I can make in an instant. Let's talk about it when I get back."

"I'm through talking about it. I'm thankful you weren't seriously injured, but I'm not willing to go on like this. I want my nice, quiet life back. I don't want a murderer for a boyfriend. And I don't want to be constantly worrying whenever you go away that I might not see you again."

"That could be true for anyone. Accidents happen all the time. My folks were killed while on vacation. I told you about that."

"That was an accident, not death from a gunman. Oh, I'm through."

The line went dead. She had hung up on me. I’d known for some time that she had a temper, and I believed she might regret her action later as she had when I'd forgotten about the awards dinner and she'd hung up on me.

I figured there was no sense calling her right back. She'd only hang up again, if she even answered the phone. I left the phone out on the nightstand next to the bed so I'd hear it if it rang and went to bed.

In the morning, I checked the phone. No calls had come in. Kathy must still be angry. Then I realized it was still the middle of the night on the east coast. I also realized I was famished. I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast yesterday.

The kitchen probably thought I had company because I ordered a double omelet, bacon, four pannekoeken, four wentelteefjes, and two pots of coffee. When the order arrived, there were four china plates on the serving cart. I signed for the food and was digging in before the room service attendant had even closed the door.

Twenty minutes later I felt like one of those enormous African snakes that had just eaten an entire antelope. When I looked down at my stomach, I could almost imagine it appearing like the greatly enlarged area in the snake where the antelope's body had stopped to be digested. I moved to the couch to digest my antelope and dozed off.

I was awakened a couple of hours later by the phone. I thought it might be Kathy but then realized it was the hotel phone.

"Colton? This is Gunter. I just had to call and thank you. The paintings have all been authenticated. It will be weeks before they can be returned to the exhibit area because the damage must be repaired, but they are once again in our possession and will be available for public viewing as soon as possible. I can't thank you enough. When the police could find no leads, I knew you were the only man for the job."

"I'm glad I was able to help."

"How are your injuries, my friend? Will you be laid up for long?"

"I was lucky, Gunter. My injuries are not too serious."

"I'm glad to hear that. I'll let you go for now. Be well, my friend and have a safe trip home."

Well, the museum director was happy. I knew the police captain in Spain would be really upset when he learned, if he hadn't already gotten the news. I wondered how Schaake felt. I found out sooner than I expected when he showed up at my hotel suite an hour later. I invited him to come in and sit down.

"Congratulations, James. The artwork was exactly where you said it would be. But how did you know?"

"Do you need to know that for your case, Chief Inspector?"

"No, thanks to you our case is solid. One of the arrested suspects has a scar on his left wrist. We took a swab of his saliva and then told him his DNA matched the DNA of blood found at the scene of the crime, proving that he had participated in the commission of the robbery. He agreed to plead guilty and testify against his companions in exchange for some mitigation of the charges against him. The leader of the group, who hasn't been apprehended yet, is also being charged with two counts of attempted murder. The one who confessed said it was the ringleader's decision to hire the assassins despite intense protests from everyone else."

"So who is the other one that hasn't been apprehended?"

When he told me the name, I knew it was the one who had driven the getaway van. He was the one who carried the Uzi the night of the robbery. Great, I thought, why couldn't the missing accomplice be the Dekker kid who had supplied the plans for the burglar alarm?

I hoped the suspects still on the loose were more concerned with freedom than looking for revenge. After Schaake left and I knew it was safe to use the gizmo in my suite, I'd find out where they were.

"You're not going to tell me, are you?"

"Tell you what?"

"How you solved this case."

"If I said I solved it through brilliant analysis and exceptional powers of deduction, would you believe me?"

"I think not."

"Then I think I will not tell you."

Schaake glared at me, then stood up. I took that as my cue to stand also so I could accompany him to the door.

"Goodbye Special Agent James. Have a safe flight home."

"Thank you, Chief Inspector. I hope you catch the two remaining fugitives soon so you can put all this unpleasant business behind you."

He glared at me again, then opened the door and walked out. I knew we would never be on good terms. I was a foreigner who had come to his country and made him and his department look bad by solving a case they couldn't. That sort of thing didn't win you many friends.

I was again debating what to do about Kathy when Kurt Locher called a couple of hours later.

"Colt, you came through for us. I'm delighted to report that all of the artwork has been authenticated."

"That's great, Kurt. I spoke to Gunter this morning."

"Well, here's one thing he couldn't tell you. The promised recovery fee has been deposited into a Swiss bank account in your name. A special courier will be delivering the papers to you soon."

"Thanks, Kurt. It's been a pleasure knowing you and doing business with you."

"It was a lucky day for us when you agreed to come to Amsterdam. Will you be returning home now?"


"Well, have a safe trip."

"Thanks, Kurt. Good-bye."

The line went dead without a further word. At least with Kurt, hanging up was his usual way of signing off.

When I went to bed around midnight, Kathy still hadn't called. People always said it was up to the man to make the first move after a fight between lovers, but dammit, it hadn't been a fight. She had simply hung up on me because I wouldn't agree to immediately quit the lucrative lifestyle I was hoping would buy her a nice home. Was I wrong to feel wronged? Maybe, but she shouldn't have hung up on me. We should have talked about it. But if she wouldn't talk to me, there was nothing I could do.

I was still feeling pretty low in the morning, so I decided to go see Mia. But before I left, I performed an electronic sweep of the suite. I was surprised when it came up clean. I thought the sensor purchased from Watson might be on the fritz, so I tested it using one of the bugs removed from my belts. The sensor beeped as it should, so I put the bug back into the metal case that rendered it ineffective, reset the sensitivity level, and swept the suite again. Nothing. I was astounded. I had been afraid to use the gizmo all this time, and there had been nothing to worry about. Of course, they could have removed everything while I was in London.

Believing the suite to be safe, I decided to use the gizmo. But just in case there were bugs the sensor wasn't seeing, I decided to do it in the bathroom with the door closed.

As I sat on the throne, I placed the gizmo against the wall and changed the coordinates from my present location to the NH Barbizon Palace by following the streets. I could have used my computer to learn the GPS coordinates, but I figured this way was just as fast because I was less than a kilometer away.

When I reached the hotel, I moved the event-window to the right level and passed through the outside wall. In seconds I was in the hallway outside Mia's suite where a bored security man was standing. I'd once told Billy I'd never used the gizmo to look at women's naked bodies, but this was different. I had already seen Mia naked in person.

As I passed through the walls and into her bedroom, I saw her naked form on the bed. She appeared to be sleeping. She looked so beautiful and peaceful lying there that I knew I had to hurry over to her hotel. If I got there before she went out, we might be able to play around a little this morning.

Then my jaw dropped. A man had come out the bathroom. He was also naked. He climbed onto the bed and kissed Mia lightly on her left arm. My Mia. She awoke, smiled, then wrapped her arms around him and kissed him as she had always kissed me. I was shattered. I double-checked the date on the gizmo just to make sure I was looking at the present and not a previous sexual encounter. It was confirmed. I was seeing a live view of her bedroom as it was at that moment in time.

Chapter Twenty-Four

There was an old saying about eavesdropping that sooner or later you'd hear something that made you wish you hadn't eavesdropped. The gizmo gave me images instead of sounds, but I had just seen something that made me regret eavesdropping on Mia. Knowledge of her affair with another man just several days after professing her undying love to me made me believe I couldn't trust anything she had said.

I forgot all about searching for the two robbery suspects and put the gizmo away, then showered, shaved, dressed, and went out. But I didn't go to Mia's hotel. Instead I just walked. And walked and walked and walked. I felt lost. Not because I didn't know where I was, but because in two days' time I had lost the only two women I'd ever really loved. One shut me out of her life, and the other couldn't wait to jump into bed with another man while I was busy at work.

I decided I was ready to leave Amsterdam. Not only Amsterdam, I was ready to leave Europe. I used my cell phone to make plane reservations for a KLM flight to New York City. I still had to pack and wrap up a few things, so I booked a flight for the next day. Then I found a florist and purchased flowers to be delivered to Mia the next afternoon. I wrote a short message on the card explaining that I had to go home right away. I told her I would treasure our time together forever and wished her a wonderful stay in Amsterdam.

It was still early in the afternoon, so I wandered around for a while, stopping into a few small shops here and there, examining new and used trinkets of every sort. Shopping in secondhand stores was a habit I'd picked up when I was broke. And even though I had the money now to buy whatever I wanted, I still enjoyed doing it. I never knew what small treasures I'd find. The junkman in Sacramento would certainly know what I meant. My last stop was to a combination secondhand store and fix-it shop. While I'd been playing Santa Claus to the drunks of Amsterdam, I'd spotted an old beer stein in the window, so I'd gone inside to browse around the shop and inquire about the mug. I learned it had a chip missing on the top edge, but the proprietor said he could fix it so no one would ever know it had been damaged. I knew Billy would love it, so I'd paid the owner for the stein and a few other small items and told him I'd pick them up before I left Amsterdam to return to the States.

My chores complete, I headed back to the Pulitzer. My flight was an early one, so I prepared as much as I could. I wasn't hungry, so I just sat on the couch thinking about everything that had happened since I'd found the gizmo. I was trying to determine if I was better off or worse. If I hadn't found the device, I would probably either be flipping burgers for minimum wage by now or perhaps driving a cab. I probably never would have gotten together with Kathy. I would never have had the experiences of my time at Quantico and working for the FBI. I would not have bank accounts containing millions of dollars, probably would never have visited Europe, and definitely would never have met Mia. Despite the terrible way it ended, knowing Mia had been a wonderful experience and one I would cherish for as long as I lived. Also, I probably wouldn't have been shot, but living in a big city I could never be sure about that.

When I added up all the pluses and deducted the minuses, there was no question about it. My life was infinitely better than it had been before the gizmo. I would still love to know where it had come from, but that didn't really matter in the grand scheme of things. The emails had even stopped appearing in my computer, so I guess whoever was watching me knew I would never, ever, give it up or destroy it. I knew Billy would never say anything about it, but I didn't know about Morris. I really regretted showing him the gizmo, and I knew it was too dangerous to investigate its source further than I already had.

I went to bed confident that, given the choice, I would never return to my former life. I also knew I would fight to the death to retain possession of the gizmo.

The Amsterdam airport was crowded and the lines were long. When I reached the security checkpoint, I held out my FBI ID and my Netherlands firearms license. After a quick check of my credentials, I was passed through. The guards ignored the beep caused by my two weapons.

The flight out on KLM departed at twelve-fifty, so I had plenty of time to kill before the eight hour, forty minute flight departed for Newark Airport. I picked up a couple of English language newspapers and settled in to wait at the gate area. The minutes seemed to drag by but finally the plane boarded.

When everyone was seated, all luggage had been properly stowed, and seat backs and tray tables were in their upright and locked positions, the plane departed. I looked at my watch and realized that Mia should be getting the flowers I had sent in a couple of hours. I wondered what her reaction would be. I wondered if I dared watch on the gizmo later. If she was sad, would I regret my decision to leave without saying goodbye in person? Or if she merely grinned and tossed the note in the wastebasket, would I be further heartbroken? I decided I was spending too much time dwelling on my two failed love affairs and needed to think about something else. But I just couldn't get Kathy and Mia out of my head.

The plane arrived in Jersey a few minutes early. After deplaning, I picked up my luggage and headed for the customs area. But before I got there I spotted Special Agents Osborne and Snow.

"Sherlock finally returns," Osborne said as I neared them.

"Hi, guys. Sobert got you working the purse-snatching detail again?"

Snow frowned. I'd learned early on that he did that a lot. I guess it was his way of not saying things he might later regret, so he said very little.

"Somebody's got to keep the world safe from little old ladies," Osborne said.

I had been all wrong about Osborne initially. When we first met, I'd thought he didn't have a sense of humor. I suppose it was just his professional demeanor overriding his true personality. Once I'd become part of the team, he'd let me see the real person.

"Watch out for the ones with attitude. They can be mean."

"I let Snow handle them. One good glare and they're running for the exits."

Snow frowned even more.

"ADIC Sobert sent us to pick you up," Osborne said.

"Hey, that was real nice of him to have you come to give me a ride home."

"He wants to see you at headquarters."

"Headquarters? Why? Does he have a cold case that's giving him frostbite?"

"He didn't say. He just said to go get you."

I hadn't talked to Sobert since I'd been recruited. Brigman was my only real contact, other than the three people whose names I still didn't know. Osborne led the way to the customs counter where a customs official passed us through without checking my bags.

I quickly learned that Osborne's driving hadn't improved any since I'd been recruited. He still drove like a NYC cab driver who'd just had a fight with his wife.

When we reached Sobert's office, we were told to go right in. Sobert was alone.

"Sit down, James."

Osborne and Snow weren't invited to sit, so they stood behind me.

"You recently visited a testing laboratory in Paramus. Why?"

"Paramus? You must be talking about the place where Morris Calloway works. I stopped in to see him a couple of months ago."

"For what reason?"

"What's this about?"

"Why did you visit Calloway?"

"I was doing research for a book. I'd worked with him previously, and I thought he might be able to help me out. It was personal business."

"You signed the visitor's log as being on FBI business."

"No, sir. In the column marked 'Company,' I wrote FBI because the Bureau is my only employer."

Sobert breathed deeply and then let it out slowly. "Your friend is dead."

"What? Morris dead? How? When?"

"His body was found by fishermen in the Hackensack River. It had been weighted down to sink, but the rope apparently broke after a couple of weeks. The police don't have official data yet from the medical examiner, but it appears he was beaten to death. They only know he failed to report to work a few days after you left for Europe. The New Jersey State Police contacted us as part of their homicide investigation to learn why you had visited him. They thought it might have a bearing on their case."

"It had nothing to do with any case I was working on for the FBI. I was only there for about an hour."

"What was your question?"

"I asked him if he knew of any material such as Nitinol that didn't require the application of high heat to return to its original shape."


"It's a paramagnetic alloy of nickel and titanium. If its shape has been altered after manufacture, the application of heat makes it metamorphose to its original shape. I was wondering if a manufactured weapon could be reshaped into a harmless device to get past security screening equipment, then become a weapon again using low heat or no heat." I'd worked out an excuse for my visit to Morris as rebuttal for his claim that I showed him the gizmo should he ever tell anyone about it, but I never expected to use it as a murder defense.

"And this Nitinol is common?"

"It's just a nickel and titanium alloy. Its unique properties were discovered way back in 1959, and you can find it in a number of common products today. Its super elasticity and other properties make it ideal for certain products such as springs, wire, tubing, and foil. I didn’t think Nitinol itself would be useful in the way I envisioned, so I wanted to know if some other product had been developed that would. I thought that on an airplane, someone could heat the alloy using one of the microwave ovens and one of those special oven bags that hold in heat. I was curious if Morris might know something."

"Why didn't you simply call him?"

"Morris is— was— kind of a strange duck. If you weren't standing right in front of him, he sort of ignored you."

"And it had absolutely nothing to do with any FBI investigation?"

"Nothing whatsoever."

"And you have no idea who might be responsible for his death?"

"No idea at all, sir. I hadn't heard anything from him following that visit. I hope my question wasn't responsible. I hope he didn't query someone already working on the idea— someone who felt they needed to protect the secrecy of their project. Or perhaps it had something to do with his research work at the lab. Perhaps he discovered something and tried to sell it to an outside party."

"Would he have done that?"

"I don't know. I'm just speculating here. I thought that's what you wanted from me."

"All I want is facts."

"The facts are that I have no idea who killed him, or why. At least not yet."

Sobert frowned like Snow, but I was sure it wasn't an imitation. "Keep your nose out of it. It's strictly a Jersey homicide case at this time."

"Yes, sir."

"Okay, James, that's all."

"Yes, sir," I said as I stood up. Osborne and Snow followed me out of the office.

"Were you serious in there?" Osborne asked. "There's a metal that can be reshaped and then change back when heat is applied?"

"Yeah. Look it up on the internet. It's not a secret. It's been around for fifty years."

"I think our job is about to get harder. Suppose someone shapes it into a firearm, then heats it up after a murder. Or even a knife that becomes a paperweight or something. There will be no weapon to find."

"Yeah, that's a variation on the idea I had, but it could be employed if research on a material with similar properties has reached that point. Your point about the knife is a good one, but if it was reshaped into a gun after manufacture, you'd probably only be able to fire it once. The hot gases from the cartridge would probably distort the barrel enough to make a second shot impossible. And I read that there are metal fatigue issues from the reshaping as well, which is why I wondered if there wasn't a more suitable material. Well, you guys brought me down here, you gonna take me home?"

"Come on, Sherlock," Osborne said, as he turned and led the way out.

It had been a long day. The almost nine hours on a plane had really taken the wind out of my sails, and then learning that Morris was dead had filled me with feelings of dread. I had warned him not to tell anyone, but he apparently hadn't listened. I wondered who he had contacted and what he had told them.

When also considering the complete loss of what had been a great love life until recently, it was a wonder I wasn't drowning my sorrows in a bottle somewhere as I bored a bartender with the problems I could talk about. With luck, Billy hadn't emptied my fridge while I was gone. I could really use a couple of ice cold beers.

I knew that despite how tired I felt, the first thing I had to do was sweep my apartment for electronic bugs, then use the gizmo to find out who had killed Morris and why. Sobert had told me stay out of it, but I couldn't. I suspected I might know why it happened, but I hoped I was wrong. Perhaps he had simply borrowed money from the wrong people or gotten in over his head with gambling debt. I remembered how excited he'd gotten when he'd seen the gizmo, and his first inclination had been to mortgage his house and gamble the money in the stock market.

I felt exhausted as I climbed the stairs to my third-floor flat, dragging the first of my two suitcases behind me, that I could barely lift my feet. And I still had to return to the first floor to retrieve the suitcase I'd left in the hallway down there. I promised myself that my next apartment was going to have an elevator. Perhaps I would even have a private elevator. Kathy and I had viewed an apartment with a private elevator, although it had been way out of my price range. But if I kept solving major art thefts, I could see myself having a place like that one day. I understood Kathy's concerns for my safety, but I wasn't going to roll back the clock on my life. I would never give up the gizmo while I lived.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I stepped onto the third floor and pulled my suitcase up to join me, but then I tripped on a ripple in the cheap carpet runner outside my door because I didn't lift my foot enough. I stumbled forward, dropping my suitcase as I extended my arm in order to use the wall outside my apartment to stop my forward movement and regain my balance. The damn light bulb in the hall was out again, and I could barely see. The light coming up from the floor below was all the illumination I had so it took me three tries to get my key into the lock, but I finally succeeded in opening the door.

It was pitch black in my apartment, so I slid my hand around on the wall until I located the switch. As I raised the toggle nub, two things happened— the hallway and kitchen illuminated normally and a gun barrel was suddenly jammed up under my chin. It woke me up faster than having an ammonia carbonate capsule shoved up my nose. I'm tall, but the guy holding the gun was taller— by at least three inches— and he was built like a pro football linebacker.

"About time you got home, James," he said. "Your flight landed hours ago. Where you been? We don't like being kept waiting. It makes us angry." He grabbed the front of my jacket and pulled me into my apartment, then slammed me against the hallway wall just inside the door. With the gun in his right hand still jammed up under my chin, he reached over and closed the open door. "Mr. Delcona has been on our ass to find you for weeks. Hands up against the wall, over your head," he said as he spun me around and started frisking me. He found my service weapon under my left armpit immediately and pulled it out, then either jammed it into his waistband or slid it into his pocket because a couple of seconds later he continued the pat down. He found my ID wallet in the inside breast pocket of my jacket next and stowed that somewhere after looking at my badge. I could see with my peripheral vision that he hadn't expressed any surprise, so these guys had known in advance that I was FBI. He found my cell phone next and stored that, then came back for more. As he continued searching me, he felt something in my right jacket pocket and reached in. His large mitt came out with the almost new matchbox I had in there.

"This look like what we're after?" King Kong said excitedly to a weight-challenged man standing in the kitchen a few feet away.

I noticed the other man was holding a gun pointed towards the sink area, but the wall prevented me from seeing who it was aimed at. I prayed it wasn't Kathy.

"Yeah, that looks like what the boss described. Open it up."

The big guy managed to hold the matchbox between his thumb and three end fingers, then slid the box out with his index finger. "There's a piece of paper in there."

"That's it, Diz, that's it" his pudgy associate said excitedly. "Open the paper up."

The man I now knew as Diz pulled the gun away from my neck so he could use both hands. He extracted the paper and unfolded it to its full eight-point-five by eleven inch size. "It's blank."

"That's gotta be it," the pudgy guy said. "Our search is over."

"Turn it on," Diz said to me as he held out the paper and again jammed the pistol against my neck.

"Turn what on?" I asked dumbly.

"The paper. Turn it on."

"It's a piece of paper, not a radio. You can't turn it on."

Without warning, Diz punched me in my left kidney. It felt like he'd hit me with enough force to push it out of my body and into the hallway. As I collapsed against the wall, he put his head close to mine and said, "We know what it is, James. Calloway told Mr. Delcona all about it before I offed that geek. I kinda thought he was just a nutcase, but the boss said his story sounded legit." He spun me around to face him and jammed the gun into my stomach. "Now turn it on or you're going for a long underwater swim in a quiet New Jersey swamp."

I knew the chances were pretty good that an unmarked grave in a Jersey swamp was the intended destination regardless of what I did. Diz had already confessed to murder. He wouldn't have done that if he expected me to live. With the gun jammed into my gut and him practically crushing me against the wall, there wasn't much I could do, even if I thought I might have a chance in a one-on-one fight. The attention of both men seemed to be entirely on the open sheet of paper Diz was holding when a blur suddenly hit Pudgy from the side and knocked him up and onto the kitchen table, sending the small radio there, along with the sugar bowl and salt and pepper shakers, crashing to the floor. The blur was my buddy Billy. After pile-driving into Pudgy, he plowed into Diz while grabbing for the paper Diz was holding up to my face. Diz had been pushed into a position that had him partially blocking the door out of the apartment, so the only route open to Billy was the living room or possibly the bathroom, the door of which was directly across from the apartment entrance.

"What the hell?" Diz said as the bathroom door slammed closed and Pudgy rolled off the table and pancaked onto the floor with a crash and a loud groan.

I'd never seen Billy move that fast on the football field, but I wasn't complaining. His attack had taken the two gunmen completely by surprise. Unfortunately, there was no way out of the small bathroom where he had sought refuge. The small five by eight foot room didn't even have a window, and the interior-style door wouldn't stop two armed men for long. The door was a mid-century style and probably a little stronger than the cheap hollow-core type used these days, but Diz might be able to smash it into kindling in short order.

"Come out of there, now!" Diz screamed at the door. He tried to kick it in, but the hallway was too narrow to get a real good angle, and to my surprise the door held for the moment. "You got two seconds to come out here before I open fire."

I heard the sound of the toilet flushing as Pudgy staggered to his feet and joined Diz at the door just as Diz raised his gun and began firing at the door handle. Pudgy, probably pissed at being blindsided, decided to add his own firepower and began shooting wildly at the door. The noise in the narrow hallway was deafening.

For the moment, both men were facing away from me. Although I was practically standing in their back pockets, they seemed to have totally forgotten me for the moment. I knew that wouldn't last long, but I might have a chance— perhaps my only chance. I dropped my arms as I raised my right leg, pulling my Glock 27 out of the ankle holster. Diz had been so excited about finding the matchbox that he hadn't finished patting me down.

When I was small, I was taught to always be a sportsman and never take unfair advantage of an opponent, but this wasn't a sport and I knew these guys would kill me in an instant if I hesitated to do what had to be done. I was so close that the material of their clothing began smoking when I fired my forty caliber twice into Diz's back, and then twice into Pudgy's. I had fired so quickly there was only the briefest of lulls in the noise as I moved the gun from one to the other.

Both men collapsed against the bathroom door and slid down to their knees. I had shot at the center of their torso, the area that was always the 'X' ring on the targets at the range, but they weren't out of the game yet. Diz began struggling to turn around and bring his gun to bear on me, so I put a round into the side of his head. Part of his skull blew off, covering the door in front of him with blood and brain. His gun arm sagged toward the floor first, and then the rest of him sagged as well. I knew he wasn't going to be getting up again, ever. But Pudgy was still struggling to get turned around, his gun held firmly in his right hand. I couldn't afford to play around with him, so I sent him to join his pal Diz on the slide into hell. At that moment I wasn't concerned in the slightest with what the FBI or New York City's finest might say about my dispatching two killers who were down but not out.

I stopped to get my breath— then remembered Billy. I pulled the grisly remains of Diz and Pudgy away from the bathroom door and let them flop onto the floor at the entrance to the living room, then pounded on the door.

"Billy, it's Colt. You okay?" When Billy didn't respond I said, a little more quietly, "The two gunmen are dead, Billy. Answer me, pal."

I heard the sound of the lock being turned. The door was riddled with holes around the handle, but apparently neither gunman had hit the locking mechanism. Then the knob turned and the door opened slightly.


"Yeah, Billy."

"You okay?"

"Yeah. I'm okay, Billy. You okay?"

"Uh, no. I think I caught a couple of rounds."

"Step away from the door, Billy, so I can open it."

"Uh, I'm on the floor, Colt. I don't think I can stand up."

"I'm going to open the door." I pushed against the door and realized I was pushing Billy with it. As soon as I got the door opened far enough, I peered in. Billy was covered in blood, and it was spreading quickly on the floor. I knew I had to get in right away, so I pushed the door open far enough to squeeze in. But I had never studied any medical treatment procedures and didn't know where to start. Billy had been hit at least four times. He was bleeding from an arm, a leg, and two places in his torso. I got down on the floor with him and cradled his head on my lap.

"Hang on, Billy. I'm sure help is on the way. This place sounded like a shooting gallery for a few minutes."

"Colt, I'm sorry."

"Don't be sorry, Billy. You saved both our asses. Your action gave me a chance to pull my backup."

"No, I mean about the gizmo. I flushed it, Colt. I couldn't let those guys get it. I couldn't let them use it for blackmail and stuff."

"You did good, Billy, real good. Now save your strength. Help is on the way."

"I don't think I'm going to make it." He coughed, then said, "I'm cold, Colt. Really cold."

From what little I knew, I figured that meant Billy was going into shock. I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to help. "I hear sirens, Billy. Hang on."

"Colt, you're the best pal I ever had," Billy gasped. "I hope you and Kathy will be happy. Give her my love."

That was the last thing he ever said. Billy died then in my arms, his eyes wide open. He was beyond the help that was coming.

"Freeze," I heard from the doorway.

I looked up and saw a uniformed city cop. I didn't know how much time had passed since Billy had died, but it couldn't have been much.

"Drop the gun," he said, his pistol pointed at my face.

"FBI," I said as I calmly put my backup pistol down on the floor. I hadn't even realized I was still holding it.

"Show me some ID."

"The big guy by your feet took it from me after jumping me as I entered my apartment. It's probably in one of his pockets."

The cop looked skeptical, but he said, "Check it, Roy," to his partner without moving his eyes off me.

Through his legs, I saw a pair of arms going through Diz's pockets, then heard, "There's an FBI ID here, a Glock, and a cell phone. Here's the ID."

The cop holding the gun on me took the ID and flipped it open. He glanced down at the picture, looked up to study my face, and then glanced down at the ID again. He finally lowered his pistol and holstered it. "Okay, Special Agent James. What happened here?"

"The two guys by your feet were waiting inside my apartment and jumped me when I got home. I just got back from Europe."

Using his chin to point to Billy, the cop asked, "Who's that?"

"He's— was—," I had to stop for a second to swallow the huge lump in my throat as I looked down at Billy's face. I felt tears welling up in my eyes as I said, "My best friend."

~ finis ~

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Product Description

Some readers have requested that the product description on Amazon, be included with the kindle copy. I've added it here:

    Colton James was just an ordinary man, struggling like the rest of humanity to earn a living from his innate talents and training, until a fateful event in early spring changed his life forever. Before dawn, a reputedly empty five-story apartment building across the street from his flat on New York City's Lower West Side, erupted into a giant fireball. Government agencies later attributed the blast to a gas leak.

    As the massive firefighting and cleanup effort began, Colton collected personal papers and property from a bent and twisted hulk that had, until minutes earlier, been his automobile. A box of photocopies he'd left on the backseat had wound up outside the vehicle and he was forced to sift through assorted street trash to recover as much as possible. Unaware that something extra had gotten mixed in with his personal items, he carried the bundle up to his apartment. When he later began to separate the papers in the privacy of his third-floor walk-up, he discovered something among the detritus that couldn't possibly exist, yet obviously did.

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